Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is All About Grants.
Megan Columbus: Welcome to another edition of All About Grants. I’m Megan Columbus with the Office of Extramural Research, here today to talk about determining the appropriate roles for people working on your project in your grant application. I have with me Dr. Amanda Boyce, who’s a program director at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases and I have Dave Curren from the Office of Extramural Research’s Division of Grants Policy. Can we talk about how the role of a PI is distinct from all the other roles?
Amanda Boyce: Sure. The most important thing to realize here is that this is the person who’s going to be running the project. You have to have the authority and the responsibility to direct that project. And it’s important to keep in mind that the institution is actually the person who determines whether or not you are that right person, and the way they determine that is by allowing you to actually submit the application. The idea here is that if it’s your scientific idea and you’re capable of intellectually and logistically directing the project then you’re probably the appropriate person to act as the PI.
Megan: I notice on the grant application that it’s actually called not a PI for principal investigator, but a PD/PI. And that stands for?
Dave Curren: That would be a project director/principal investigator. For some of our larger project grants that’s where you would have a project director as compared to a principal investigator, but it’s really the same thing, and they perform the same scientific oversight and management of the grant.
Megan: I know that NIH a few years back instituted a multiple-PI policy. So when might a project warrant the use of multiple PIs?
Amanda: The ultimate goal is to create the appropriate team of people who can do the project. And that team may consist of you, or you plus other people. If you are putting together a project with another person where you’re basically equally contributing to that project then it may be appropriate to come in with a multiple-PI project. This is most common when you’re doing something that’s interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, but that’s not necessarily a requirement.
Megan: And NIH requires you to identify a contact PI, but the fact that you’re a contact PI does that provide any different status?
Dave: That does not provide any different status at all. The only reason we had to create the contact PI was so that we have a person, a single point of contact to send emails and information to, but there is no extra advantage, there is no extra status or responsibility just because you’re a contact PI. All it means is that we have your email address.
Megan: I know in the scientific community people often use a term “Co-PI.” In fact, it’s even listed on the grant application forms because it’s recognized by some of our fellow agencies. That’s not a term that’s recognized by NIH, however. Dave, if out there people are considering using what they think of as a Co-PI, what they should use instead?
Dave: In most cases we recommend someone who would have a Co-PI-like role, to either, one, be one of the multiple-PIs on the grant if that’s most appropriate, but if it’s not or if that’s not possible, we would suggest taking a co-investigator role, which might better describe what they’re actually going to be doing, and what they will be responsible for as part of the project.
Amanda: So going back to talking about the difference between a multi-PI versus a single PI with a co-investigator. I think the general idea there is that a co-investigator is involved in the development and execution of a portion of the project, but they just don’t quite rise to the level of being a principal investigator. And there’s no hard or fast rules about what percentage, or there’s no numerical value that says this person is a PI versus a co-investigator.
Megan: Successful PIs will often establish collaborations with other investigators who have skill sets that are complementary to those of the principal investigator. Can one of you tell me when we would consider someone a collaborator rather than a co-investigator for the purpose of the grant application? What’s the distinction between those two terms?
Amanda: It’s actually pretty subtle. Both of them generally commit some sort of measurable effort to the project. That can be compensated or otherwise. The biggest difference is the level of involvement in the scientific thinking of the project. So there’s basically a continuum from PI to co-investigator to collaborator, as far as their involvement in the thinking and the logistics of the project itself. For the most part, collaborators are associated with the grantee institution, whereas co-investigators can come from either that institution or another institution.
Dave: One thing they may also want to remember is that while we can talk about this from an NIH-wide standpoint or even talk about it from the biomedical community as a whole, many specialties or many areas of science may actually have their own thoughts and views on how these different roles are perceived. So in neurology, one may think of a collaborator in one way as compared to other fields of science that may look at it somewhat differently. So you need to make sure that when looking at these potential roles for any application that you’re putting together, you keep in mind what the normal roles are and expectations are in your specific field of science.
Amanda: So the roles of the collaborator and co-investigator will be pretty clearly defined in two places. So in the application, in the Personnel Justification, you’ll be explaining the roles of these people and they’ll also be expected to provide letters. So if there is any difference in the scientific communities how they use those terms, it will be pretty clearly laid out in those two places, exactly what the roles in the project are.
Megan: And what would we expect to see in one of those letters?
Amanda: So one of the most important things in the letters is that it matches the expectations that the principal investigator is going to put in that Personnel Justification section, that everybody’s in agreement on the roles of the project. Sometimes it’s simply “I’m going to support this person,” but generally you want a really specific laid out role of that person on that project. You want that person to have a job. You don’t want them there just because they’re an important person in the field in order to boost the score of the investigator portion of the review. You really need to have a role in that project. In fact, there’s actually a third designation that you can use called “Other Significant Contributors.” They’re similar to co-investigators, but they actually don’t have defined effort, it’s just effort as needed. Again, if you think about that continuum, it’s sort of, “If I need to make a phone call because I’m having trouble with this particular experiment, this is the person I’m going to call.”
Megan: So now if I’m trying to figure out how consultants fit in. How does a consultant differ from a collaborator or another significant contributor?
Amanda: I think this is actually the easiest one. Consultants are the easiest ones to define. They basically provide advice and services for a fee. That’s clearly laid out, again, in the letters. In the letters they actually have their fee structure, and it’s very clear that they’re acting as consultants.
Dave: An important thing to note is, the first question you should always have is, what is this person going to do on the project, what do I need as far as the personnel on this application to really make sure that the eventual project would be successful? Once you understand what that role would be, then you can look at such items as: are they a person who’s going to be providing professional advice and service for a fee, are they part of my own organization, who’s going to be taking over some of the responsibility for oversight? All of those things come into play, but only once you’ve figured out what you need to successfully lead and manage this project to completion.
Megan: Dave, I assume all these roles are defined in the application guide so that when you’re putting together your grant application you can use that as a reference?
Dave: We do discuss these various roles in the SF424 R&R application guide. They’re also discussed in the NIH Grants Policy Statement. However, it is important to also recognize that a lot of this does depend on the actual field of science. So we can provide a broad definition to talk about some of the basic criteria and parameters, but ultimately, it’s really something that needs to be defined on a project-to-project or a case-by-case basis.
Megan: For the purposes of applying for an NIH grant, do we care if the PI distinguishes the work that will be done by a staff scientist versus a postdoc, or a grad student versus an undergrad tech? Is this something that will be looked at during review or time of award?
Amanda: Rather than parsing it out and looking specifically at what I would consider the support staff role, I think it’s more important to think about the review of the entire personnel. Review absolutely looks at that, and their job is to make sure that you have the appropriate expertise to get the experiments done. So they are looking basically at two things: do you have the right amount of staff working for you and do you have the right balance of staff working for you. By balance that’s seniority, expertise, all of those things. One of the review criteria is investigator, and all of that will be balanced in that investigator section. So if there is not appropriate staff on there, your score’s probably going to suffer. If there’s too much staff or the staff is too senior then they’re probably going to recommend budget cuts. So you do want to make sure that you have the appropriate balance of staff in your application.
Megan: We’ve talked about a lot of different people who make up the scientific team. Which of those people would be included on the senior/key personnel part of the application, and what does that mean practically on the application itself and philosophically?
Amanda: So importantly, your key personnel are the people who are going to be submitting their biosketches with the application, and their names are actually going to be listed on the front page of the application when the reviewers are looking at it, or when someone like me, a program officer, sees it. This is in contrast with the Personnel Justification page in the application where pretty much anyone you’ve listed is going to have a role, whether they’re named or not. So you might say that there’s a postdoc that’s going to be on this application, but you don’t have to necessarily name the postdoc. But your senior and key personnel will always be named individuals, and that’s why there’s always going to be a biosketch associated with them.
Megan: This has been very helpful. Any last piece of advice for our listeners?
Amanda: The one thing I can say is that if you put in your application, and you’ve labeled somebody as a co-investigator and you’re panicking that maybe they should have been a collaborator instead, this is not something that’s going to be a major concern to the reviewers in the study section or to the program officers once that application is reviewed. It’s very subtle differences, and really if you have the balance of expertise and the right amount of people on your application, that’s the most important thing that the reviewers are looking at.
Dave: I would agree with that completely. The one thing you want to do above all others when you’re putting together an application is to put your best foot forward and make the most enticing argument that you are the best person suited for this role, and that all the scientific personnel are the appropriate people for the project and that they can lead this project to become very successful at the end of the day.
Megan: Thank you so much. For NIH and OER this is Megan Columbus.
Announcer: Visit the OER website at grants.nih.gov for links to the NIH Grants Policy Statement, application guides, and FAQs about key personnel.