Identifying Technical Uncertainty for R&D Tax Credit Documentation

8 Minute Read
Posted by Randy Eickhoff on Oct 16, 2018 8:30:00 AM

At Acena Consulting, we've seen firsthand how many business owners miss out on capital-generating R&D tax credits simply because they don't realize that their current operations pass program eligibility mandates. It's a costly miscalculation. The U.S. R&D tax credit is one of the most significant incentives available to U.S. enterprises; effectively tapping into this multi-billion dollar program can unleash a massive upswing in cash flow that directly impacts a company's liquidity.

To qualify for the research tax credit, development activities must pass the statutory four-part test outlined in Section 41 of the Internal Revenue Code and Regulations:

  •    Business Component
  •    Technological in Nature
  •    Technical Uncertainty
  •    Process of Experimentation

According to these standards, it's not enough for an activity to be technological in nature. Tapping into the potential principal surge offered by the innovation tax credit requires that every project must also be performed with the intent of reducing uncertainty around a product, process, software, technique, formula, or invention.

Businesses in Every Industry are Uncertain About Technical Uncertainty

According to Section 41, passing the Technical Uncertainty component of the four-pronged test mandates that:

“…research is undertaken for the purpose of discovering information if it is intended to eliminate uncertainty…” “Uncertainty exists if the information available to the taxpayer does not establish the capability or method for developing or improving the business component or the appropriate design of the business component.” (IRC Regulations 1.41-4(a)(3)).

Put simply; technical uncertainty exists if the currently known and available data about a process or product cannot be applied to achieve the desired result, essentially forcing business owners to ask themselves three vital questions:

  1. Can we develop it?

  2. How do we develop it?

  3. What is the appropriate design?

What Is Technical Uncertainty And Why Is It Important For R&D Tax Credit Documentation Purposes?

As noted above, technical uncertainty is a requirement for any development effort to be considered for the R&D tax credit. When Congress enacted the R&D credit, one component was the need to discover information. Conceptually, the innovation tax credit goal has always been to foster innovation in the United States. To that end, providing motivation through the tax credit was paramount to this goal. In order to make the concept of technical uncertainty tangible, a focus on capability (Can we?), method (How can we?), or design (What is the appropriate design?) became the standard. 

Documenting this component of the four-prong test is critical in order to substantiate the questions being asked at the beginning of the development process. These questions must center around the functional unknowns that need to be answered in order to complete the development.

By understanding technical uncertainty and its importance for R&D tax credit eligibility, businesses can ensure that they can take advantage of this valuable tax incentive.

How To Identify Technical Uncertainty In Your Research And Development Process

Any R&D tax credit professional will tell you that technical uncertainty is one of the key components of a successful claim. But how can we identify technical uncertainties in our development projects?

The easiest way to identify technical uncertainties in a development project is to identify all the questions being asked at the beginning of the development effort. 

Where is the beginning?

For our purposes (meaning the R&D tax credit), the beginning of research and development is the initial concept development where brainstorming and ideation begin. Questions and unknowns should continue to be identified at each phase of the development process to understand what is not known (from a technical perspective) throughout the entire development effort. There are a few ways to identify technical uncertainty in your R&D process:

  • Identify each phase of your development process and then break down typical uncertainties that are inherent at each stage.
  • Recognize areas where in-house experience may be weaker and require additional resources.
  • Identify areas where new technologies may be experimented with in order to understand applicability to the project.
  • Document your failed projects (these are excellent examples of R&D that should be analyzed.)

Through each of these approaches, the questions that surface should be documented. As each is resolved, the iterations and failures along the way should also be documented.

The Benefits Of Documenting Technical Uncertainty For Your Business

As business owners and managers, we are constantly faced with decisions that come with a certain amount of risk. Whether it's deciding to enter a new market or investing in a new product line, there is always the potential for things to not go as planned.

One way to mitigate some of this risk is to document the technical uncertainty surrounding the decision. By clearly outlining the areas where there is uncertainty and the potential risks and rewards of each option, you can make more informed decisions that have a greater chance of success.

Additionally, documenting technical uncertainty provides a history of the roadblocks or challenges encountered for new development. Moving forward, the resolution of these challenges can result in faster development as the same uncertainties can be handled more quickly through prior experience, failures and successes.

Examples Of How To Document Technical Uncertainty In Practice

Technical uncertainty is an inherent feature of development and innovation. To manage this uncertainty, it is important to document it clearly and concisely. One way to do this is to use a Standard Problem Statement (SPS).

Standard Problem Statements (SPS)

This statement should identify the specific issue that is being addressed, as well as the stakeholders involved. It should also clearly identify the uncertainties involved, and how these uncertainties will be addressed. Another way to document technical uncertainty is through a Feasibility Study.

Feasibility Studies

This study should assess the potential risks and benefits of a proposed course of action and should be based on a clear understanding of the uncertainties involved. By documenting technical uncertainty clearly and systematically, it is possible to develop an effective plan for managing this uncertainty.

Project Plan

Including a standardized project plan in your development process that includes project goals, timelines, potential roadblocks (both business and technical), stakeholders, customers, and cost helps to provide a consistent picture of your development. In addition to documenting your technical uncertainties, it provides a roadmap, consistency, and clarity to your development process.

Tips For Maintaining Accurate Records Of Your R&D Activities

If you're engaged in research and development (R&D) activities, it's important to keep accurate records of what you've done. Accurate documentation will not only help you to stay organized, but it can also be crucial if you need to defend your work in the event of a dispute. Here are some tips for maintaining accurate records of your R&D activities:

Tip 1:

First, make sure to keep track of all correspondence related to your work. This includes emails, letters, and any other communication with funding agencies, collaborators, and other interested parties.

Tip 2:

Second, maintain detailed records of your expenses. This includes not only direct costs like materials and equipment but also indirect costs like travel and office expenses.

Tip 3:

Third, keep a detailed lab notebook documenting all of your experiments and results. Make sure to date and sign each entry, and have a colleague verify and sign each entry as well.

Tip 4:

Finally, be sure to save all data related to your work, including raw data, calculations, and final results. Back up your data regularly and store it in a safe location. By following these tips, you can ensure that you have accurate records of your R&D activities.

The Importance Of Staying Up-To-Date On Changes To The R&D Tax Credit Legislation

The R&D tax credit is a vital tool for businesses that engage in research and development activities.

The credit helps to offset the costs of R&D projects, making it easier for businesses to invest in new technologies and products. However, credit is subject to change regularly, and businesses need to stay up-to-date on the latest changes. The legislation governing credit is complex, and the rules can change rapidly. As a result, businesses that fail to stay informed may find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes time to file their taxes.

By staying up-to-date on the latest changes to the R&D tax credit legislation, businesses can ensure that they can take advantage of this important tax break.


Technical uncertainty is a key part of the research and development process, and it’s important to document it accurately for R&D tax credit purposes. By understanding what technical uncertainty is and how to identify it in your business, you can benefit from significant financial savings on your taxes. Our team of experts is here to help you understand and document your R&D activities so you can take advantage of this valuable tax credit.

Stop Struggling with Technical Uncertainty Classification

Don't waste precious time backfilling interviews or guessing at your company's innovative tax credit qualifications. Contact Acena Consulting to discuss with one of our experienced advisors to determine your business's current eligibility.

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Randy Eickhoff

Randy Eickhoff

Acena Consulting President Randy Eickhoff, licensed CPA, has partnered with more than 200 companies during more than 20 years of experience securing tax credits and other government incentives. His corporate partners range from multinational technology firms to smaller, privately held manufacturing, sports, and technology enterprises.