Repost: On submitting a grant application from a University you plan to leave

Aug 11 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

This entry was originally posted 2/9/2011.


  • A bit of confusion has arisen on the Twitts over who can serve as the PI of a grant application submitted to the NIH, who "owns" the award and what the implications are for moving the award to another University.

    For a highly related topic I recommend you re-read my old post Routes to Independence: Beyond Ye Olde Skool Tenure Track Assistant Professorships (original).

    To distill it to a few simple points for the current discussion:

    • The University (or Research Institution, company, etc) submits the grant to the NIH and receives the award from the NIH.
    • Anyone who the submitting institution deems to be a PI can serve as the PI. Job title or status is immaterial as far as the NIH is concerned.
    • Postdocs, Research Scientists, Staff Scientists, etc can be the listed PI on most broad NIH mechanisms (there may be the occasional special case like MD-required or something).
    • The submitting institutions, for the most part, permit anyone of tenure track professorial appointment to prepare NIH grants for them to submit but it gets highly variable (across institutions, across their respective non-professorial and/or non tenure track...and across time) after that.
    • The question of how study sections view applications submitted by those of other than tenure track professorial rank is a whole 'nother question, but you would be making a mistake to think there are hard and fast exclusive principles.

    The second issue has to do with moving the award to another institution, given that a PI on an NIH award decides to go somewhere else. Although technically the University owns the award, in the vast majority of cases that institution will relinquish the award and permit it to travel with the PI. Likewise, in the vast majority of cases, the NIH will permit the move. In all cases I am aware of this move will occur at the anniversary of funding. That is because the award is in yearly increments (maximum of 5 unless you win a PECASE or MERIT extension* of the non-competing interval). Each progress report you submit? That's the "application" for the next year of funding. Noncompeting application, of course, because it does not go back to study section for review. At any rate it makes it less painful for all concerned to do the accounting if the move is at the anniversary.

    Soooooo.....

    Point being that if you are a postdoc or non tenure track scientist who wants to write and submit a grant, you need to start snooping around your local University about their policies. Sometimes they will only let you put in a R21 or R03 or some other nonrenewable mechanism. Sometimes they'll let you throw down the R01. Just depends. Most of the time it will require a letter of exception to be generated within the University- Chair or Dean level stuff. Which requires the approval of your current lab head or supervisor, generally. You need to start talking to all these people.

    Since these types of deals are frequently case-by-case and the rules are unwritten, don't assume that everyone (i.e., your PI) knows about them. Snoop around on RePORTER for awards to your institution and see if anyone with non-TT professorial appointment has ever received an award from the NIH. Follow up on that rumour that Research Scientist Lee once had an award.

    If you are really eager, be prepared to push the envelope and ask the Chair/Dean type person "Well why not? University of State1 and State University2 and IvyUni3 and Research Institute4 all permit it, why can't we?". This may require doing some background surveying of your best buddies spread around the country/world.

    Final point:
    Obviously I wouldn't be bringing up these theoretical possibilities if I hadn't seen it work, and with some frequency. As a reviewer on a study section I saw several applications come through from people who had the title of something below tenure track assistant professor. Instructor, Research Scientist and yes, even Postdoc. I myself submitted at least two R01 applications prior to being able to include the word "Professor" on my Biosketch. I have many peers that were in a similar circumstance at their early stage of grant writing/submitting and, yes, winning.

    No, you will not be treated just like an Assistant Professor by the study sections. You will be beat up for Independence issues and with doubts about whether this is just the BigCheeze trying to evade perceptions of overfunding. You will have "helpful" reviewers busting on your appointment as evidence of a lack of institutional commitment that the reviewer really thinks will get the Dean or Chair to cough up a better title**.

    In all of this however there is a chance. A chance that you will receive an award. This would have very good implications for your transition. (Assuming, of course, that you manage to get the grant written and submitted without too big of a hit to your scientific productivity, never forget that part.) And even if you do not manage to obtain a fundable score, I argue that you get valuable experience. In preparing and submitting a half-decent proposal. In getting some degree of study section feedback. In taking a shot across the bow of the study section that you have ideas and you plan to have them review them in the coming few years. In getting the PO familiar with your name. In wrangling local bureaucracy.

    All of this without your own tenure clock running.
    __
    *there may be other extensions I am unaware of.

    **One of the first questions I asked an experienced reviewer about after joining a study section. Sigh.

  • 20 responses so far

    • Emaderton3 says:

      I have taken this chance many times when I was a RAP with a K award, and as you mentioned, got destroyed by reviewers on issues related to independence, lab space, institutional support, etc. That being said, receiving these type of comments over and over again in grant reviews led to my department supporting a switch to tenure-track. While all that changed was my title, I saw some improvements in reviews and did get a small NIH grant upon resubmission (in which my support/position was 1 of the 2 issues that there was concern on an original submission that scored very well). It is worth a shot!

    • Pippso says:

      I am wondering if it can help the postdoc to go in with a multiPI application instead (R21 or R01)..
      Maybe being PI together with current mentor?
      any thoughts?

    • TenuredAnon says:

      Re: Multi-PI with current mentor - I think this can backfire based on personal experience. A recent grant received a poor score for investigators based on the (erroneous) rationale that the two multi-PIs had an advisor/advisee relationship in the past (they did not).

    • Dave says:

      I am wondering if it can help the postdoc to go in with a multiPI application instead

      Problem with that is that ESI status is lost if awarded. Fine in the short term, not so good in the longer term when the postdoc wants to get his/her own RPG as Assistant Prof.

      I have taken this chance many times when I was a RAP with a K award, and as you mentioned, got destroyed by reviewers on issues related to independence, lab space, institutional support, etc.

      I'm at a place where almost everyone is on the 'research track', regardless of rank, and I have never seen issues with institutional support come up in R01 reviews. I've seen it a lot with the Ks, but not Rs. I guess I will find out for myself shortly.......

      Maybe it's different if one is a RAP at an institute where TT is the norm...?

    • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

      "Although technically the University owns the award, in the vast majority of cases that institution will relinquish the award and permit it to travel with the PI."

      Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaah!

    • Anon says:

      This might be a naive question, but why is independence of the PI one of the criteria? What if I enjoy working with my postdoc mentor, but prefer to stay as a RAP in her lab and oversee part of her group. If I write an R01 unrelated to her work and submit it with a letter of support saying I can use her equipment, why should anyone care if I don't have independent space? Would the science really be better if I moved to a new institution and bought my own equipment?

    • odyssey says:

      Anon,
      The fears would be that you're not really independent (even though you might be) and that the institution isn't willing to put any skin in the game (i.e. they're not giving you space of your own and a more "permanent" position). I'm not defending either of those positions, just listing the perceived issues.

    • Philapodia says:

      @Anon

      Independence of the PI is not one of the official criteria for being a PI. For PA-302-13, the investigator criteria that should be reviewed is:

      "Are the PD(s)/PI(s), collaborators, and other researchers well suited to the project? If Early Stage Investigators or New Investigators, or in the early stages of independent careers, do they have appropriate experience and training? If established, have they demonstrated an ongoing record of accomplishments that have advanced their field(s)? If the project is collaborative or multi-PD/PI, do the investigators have complementary and integrated expertise; are their leadership approach, governance and organizational structure appropriate for the project?"

      and eligible individuals are:

      "Any individual(s) with the skills, knowledge, and resources necessary to carry out the proposed research as the Program Director(s)/Principal Investigator(s) (PD(s)/PI(s)) is invited to work with his/her organization to develop an application for support. Individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups as well as individuals with disabilities are always encouraged to apply for NIH support."

      The independence of the PI is mostly a reviewer bias that is not an official criteria that is often used as a StockCritique. The case could be made that you can't do the work if your PI and you get into a fight and fires you, but in that case you would likely keep the grant and there are probably ways you could still get the work done.

      Keep in mind that to the TT independent faculty member is the traditional awardee in the NIH system, and there can be subconscious bias (or not so subconscious in some cases) against "non-normative" applicants (i.e. non-tenure-track). Not everyone does this, but there is a subset of reviewers with this mindset that can sink you for these inane reasons. If you happen to have an independent soft-money position with your own lab and equipment, you can still get hit with the "not-on-the-tenure-track" critique that implies that you are not good enough to be TT, which in most cases is simply not true. SROs don't tend to screen out these types of reviews, so many a good grant are giving poor investigator scores for issues like this.

    • PD says:

      I thought that R21 does not disqualify from ESI status?

    • dsks says:

      "Although technically the University owns the award, in the vast majority of cases that institution will relinquish the award and permit it to travel with the PI."

      Hypothetically, what would an institution do if it DID decide to keep the award in house? Is it at their own discretion to simply assign a different PI, or does the NIH get to veto such a move?

    • Pippso says:

      @PD: I actually thought that multiPI R01 does not either

    • jmz4gtu says:

      "Hypothetically, what would an institution do if it DID decide to keep the award in house?"
      -A shittestorm, if the grant is big enough. See the ongoing legal drama with Paul Aisen and his attempts to take his data and grant with him from UCSD to UCSC.

      " I have never seen issues with institutional support come up in R01 reviews. I've seen it a lot with the Ks, but not Rs."
      -Yeah, it came up in my K. Apparently some places actually state in their letters of institutional commitment that they plan to straight up hire you if you get the grant. One of the reviewers was clearly expecting that, but my ILAF definitely doesn't do that, as one of the other reviewers pointed out: "institutional support is as strong as X offers."

    • Dave says:

      What if I enjoy working with my postdoc mentor, but prefer to stay as a RAP in her lab and oversee part of her group

      Well damn you!!!! How dare you!!!!

    • Anon says:

      @odyssey & @Philapodia,

      Thanks for the clarification. I now see where the bias comes from, but I still don't understand the reasoning behind it. The university submits the grant on my behalf, and they, not my PI, own all of the equipment and space. Has it happened before that, given an RAP with an Ro1, a university wouldn't provide space/access to complete the work?

      The whole independence thing seems confusing to me. I often hear advice that I should include more senior co-PIs on my grants, since collaboration is becoming more and more common. But collaborating with my former adviser -- the person with whom I have an established, productive relationship -- is frowned upon due to "independence". What is the benefit in forcing everyone to break scientific ties with the labs they trained in? (If we stopped penalizing long-term advisor/advisee relationships we could probably do without the new emeritus mentoring grants that have been discussed.)

    • Philapodia says:

      "I now see where the bias comes from, but I still don't understand the reasoning behind it."

      Don't assume that there is a coherent, rational reason behind it. There may be some rational-sounding excuses given, but in the end it serves to keep the vertically ascending old boys club exclusive.

    • 1-75 Scientist says:

      Anon-
      I think a lot will come down to strength of letters from Dept chair for support of the research and the Study Section you submit to. A letter from the PI will help, but it is far better to have one from the Dept head saying how things will be handled, and what resources are explicitly departmental that you have access to. Also, what office space they have given you, and if there is actual lab space they have allocated to you. It may be harder, but its not impossible to get a grant as a non-TT faculty member. I've a friend who has been awarded an R03, R21 and R01. This individual is listed as a Senior Scientist, a staff position at their university, and if I remember highest degree is a MA. So, it can be about the ability to do good research and not just letters/credentials.

    • yellowfish says:

      I agree completely with your last paragraph. I put in an R01 and a few R21s as a research scientist (requiring special dispensation from multiple parties). I didn't get them or even really come close, but did get scores. I was definitely explicitly dinged because they didn't believe I was independent. But, whether or not I got them didn't matter- I learned all about the submission process and got a lot of the learning curve in terms of basic grant components and forms out of the way. And, because I had at that point worked more than once with the same PO and revised the same idea with her over a few application cycles, when I started my faculty position, I was way ahead of the game and actually got my R01 funded on the first round, which made everyone at the new job very happy. Totally worth it.

    • drugmonkey says:

      Glad to hear that helped you.

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