This entry was originally posted 2/9/2011.
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.
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.
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.