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I have two questions about grants:

  1. If someone wins a grant, do they have to perform research exactly about the questions they proposed in the grant? Or, is there room to change the research question later?

  2. What to do if there is uncertainty when I do not know which lab or even country I will be in the coming year. As I understand, the grant is written with the help of a PI and ideally the research is done in their lab. Do people set in the stone where they want to do the research before writing the grant? If the postdoc has to move to another country, what happens to the grant? Is it divided between the postdoc and the PI?

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    It depends, what do the policies of the specific granting organization say? – Bryan Krause Sep 1 at 18:13
  • What is the role of PI here? Do they own the grant or is it shared with the postdoc? Can a postdoc apply for a grant on their own? – MOON Sep 1 at 18:17
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    Answers: It depends, it depends, and it depends. Grants can differ quite a bit. – Bryan Krause Sep 1 at 18:20
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    I'm confused what's your position here. Are you a postdoc, writing a grant? If so, why? (to be blunt) – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 1 at 18:28
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    More often than not postdocs are not eligible to hold grants in their own name (not always the case), although they can be named on grants as the reseracher that will do the research, they do not generally own the grant in any way. Postdocs can however hold fellowships in their own name. The difference between a fellowships and grants is that grants are about funding a project, while fellowships are about funding a person. – Ian Sudbery Sep 1 at 18:48
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I'm going to assume the US and the National Science Foundation for the purposes of this answer because it's the main thing I have experience with. Also, "IT DEPENDS":

  1. If the research question needs to change a bit because the research isn't going exactly where you thought it would, the Principal Investigator should have a discussion with the Program Officer/Manager assigned to them by NSF. There's some slop in the system. They'll probably want you to follow the science. Biology awards probably can't be turned into pure theoretical Mathematics ones, but the PO will be able to guide the PI.
  2. NSF money can't be used to pay a foreign national to work in their home country (nor an American in a foreign one) except under extreme circumstances or ones required by the science (think Large Hadron Collider or the Antarctic Program). The grant is to the institution under the direction of the PI, not directly to the PI and other named people. And, if the postdoc decides to go back to their home country, they just go home and don't get to work on the project anymore unless another source of funding with different rules comes along. If the PI decides to move from Harvard to Yale and wants to take the grant with them, then they can ask Harvard to release it to Yale and NSF for their permission, and maybe it'll all work out. Happens all the time. There were certain advantages at review-time for awarding the grant to the PI when they were at Harvard (Facilities document), now NSF has to decide if Yale is a good enough substitute. I've never heard of it not working out, but it might if the PI was taking a big step down (Harvard to a community college, maybe?). If the PI were trying to take an Engineering Research Center (ERC) or telescope or supercomputer with them, then everyone would probably say "no."
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This will differ by granting institution, but nobody expects research to go off without a hitch.

In general, though, research grants are contracts between the granting institution and the research institution -- not the investigator. Changes of location can be done, but it's not a light matter.

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You have two sets of rules to follow (really more):

  • your institution. If you are part of an institution (university) or company they will have set guidelines about leeway they will have with certain grants. In fact (very major medical university example) the guidelines will vary by department and could vary more by staff member. This is in your institutions best interests to keep each person in line so that they have more of a favorable status. For instance if you "broke rules" and went off and did your own thing... Sure you may not get sued and possibly the money is never recouped but others that your work with may not get funding anymore or at the very least be under more review. And more review usually means less miscellaneous money allocated. I have witnessed misallocations being deducted from larger university pool or general stipend numerous times.

  • who gave the grant. If it was government there probably is close to zero chance you are moving countries - speaking in general here. If private then you would have to work with that company. Depending on how you wrote your funding work it could be implied that you will do research at the addresses that you gave. Moving without an OK could be a hard stop to funding and you would be in possible default.

  • governing agencies. Some grant "markets" are so pervasive that the grantors are not able to monitor EVERYTHING. That is where government agencies get involved. They can make the call if a doctor can order 20 new laptop for their staff based on a general grant and things like that. Most universities have large staff that work with these agencies and keep their doctors in line with the rules that change quite frequently.

As far as specific on what you research there are usually review periods built in where you need to submit your status and findings and future intent. Depending on what type of grant it is - as stated above - it could be your university requiring these, an agency or the grantor/company. So you would need to ask this question to your department grant team (PI) or to the grantor. If the grant "contract" is vague obviously it allows you more flexibility.

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Moving to another country

I'll try to answer one of your many questions, namely "If the postdoc has to move to another country, what happens to the grant?".

Most grants are awarded by national institutions who would contract the performance of the research either only in their country or in a particular institution in their country. (EU grants may allow or even expect intra-EU mobility)

If after awarding the grant but before starting it the postdoc has moved to another country, then that would generally simply disqualify them from that grant, and it would be canceled. Perhaps the institution can allocate some different postdoc for the approved research from the same grant; perhaps that money goes to the grant proposal who was "next in line" in the grant competition.

If the postdoc "has to" (it's usually a choice) move to a different country or institution during the grant execution, then that would most likely break the conditions of the grant contract, and would stop the grant. It's possible that in this case part of the already received funding would have to be repaid, depending on the contract conditions.

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The degree of flexibility is determined precisely and only by the particular grant, contract, or fellowship program that you are dealing with. Some give a great degree of flexibility (e.g., US NSF grants) while others have an extremely rigid set of deliverables and timelines (e.g., DARPA projects).

In general, however:

  • Grants and contracts are with an institution, not a person. Grants tend to be more flexible than contracts, with more ability to change the research as you go. In either case, the money will move only if the PI moves and the funder and institutions want to cooperate. You might be able to arrange a way to be paid at another institution (e.g., via a subcontract or a remote position), but that would be quite unusual at the postdoc level.
  • Fellowships tend to be the most flexible. They are typically given to people rather than institutions, and tend to essentially follow them wherever they go within certain boundaries. Many are restricted by nation, but some are not. Likewise, they often have the least constraint on the specific research to be carried out.
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While there are different questions here, I'll answer from the point of view of Computer Science in the United Kingdom.

Different funding bodies vary hugely on how much you need to "follow" your original plan. The EU expects regular submissions, which show your progress towards your original goal, and an explanation of any deviations. On the other hand, the EPSRC funding council provide great freedom, basically trusting you once you start. They are also happy if you do very different research to your original target, assuming you have a good reason.

In the UK, research money generally "follows the PI", so if they move University the money goes with them. Postdocs do not have any right to take money to another University. It is possible to transfer a grant to another PI in exceptional circumstances (for example, the old PI leaves the country, or academia) -- such requests are considered, it helps if there was another person already working on the project who is an obvious new PI.

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