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An NSF research proposal was prepared last year. Even though all scientific work planned at the university will be done by two postdocs and 2 - 3 graduate students, the university requires a tenured/tenure-track faculty to be a PI. As a result, they couldn't submit the proposal.

This year, to satisfy this requirement, a tenured faculty was chosen to be a "place-holder PI". This PI's research is not directly related to the project, and he also has little interest to get involved. He's just there to satisfy the university's requirement.

Will the existence of such a place-holder PI hurt the chance of such a proposal being funded?

If not, how should the proposal explain the role of the place-holder PI?


More detail: The proposal in question is actually a collaborative proposal (also interdisciplinary: math + biology), and there is an experienced biologist who will be the PI in University B.

The two post-docs, in University A, are on the mathematical side. The university rule is that they cannot be the PIs. A tenured/tenure-track faculty in University A must be the PI. That's why a place-holder PI was picked.

So the proposal's personnel structure look like this:

  • University A: 1 Place-holder PI + 2 post-doc co-PIs + students
  • University B: 1 PI + students + ...

So my question is mainly about whether or not the appearance of one useless PI can be problematic. (the other PI is not useless)

Just to add more detail, in both the proposal development stage and the proposal itself, more experienced professors are indeed involved. The post-docs' mentor (who was also the advisor of the graduate students) was deeply involved in the development of the proposal but can no longer be the PI (for reasons that are too unique to mention here). A slightly more experienced researcher outside University A (me) is also listed in the proposal for the role to provide some guidance --- basically fill in the hole the original PI left. And I will provide a letter of collaboration.

My original question left out these important detail (to avoid the rather unique situation being easily identifiable). This misled earlier answers to focus on the appearance that we have two post-docs are leading the project, which does not look like a good situation. This is actually not the case. But those answers are, of course, still very good answers.

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    I would think that if/when the PI cannot actually bring any expertise to the project, that's clearly worse than a competing project with a contributing PI... Nov 21 at 22:21
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    What is strange about this situation is that there are two post-docs doing research without a PI who is interested in their work. That seems problematic.
    – Roland
    Nov 22 at 5:51
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    Even more strange is having graduate students on the project without their supervisor. Nov 22 at 9:17
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    I think the post-docs should smarten up and find a tenured faculty, somewhere else, that can effectively support them. Or look for other fundings sources. Current potential PI is saying something like "nice, you are trying to bring in funds for the department, good idea, good luck!" which can be understand as "you naive young guns, you put a lot of efforts in writing the proposals, you bring in the money (500k £*$/€, from the number of people involved), you may even win it but you have no guarantee from the university you will be employed here?! Good luck!"
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 22 at 10:47
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    Since post docs are involved, may I suggest looking towards applying for mentored Grant's, this is what they're for. I don't believe your current proposed strategies will be well received during review. Nov 22 at 22:30

3 Answers 3

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Generally a funder won't provide funding to a project unless the host institute guarantees the grant holder will have a job for the length of the grant. Generally institutions will only do that if the person in question is tenured or tenure track.

The phrase we'd usually use is something along the lines of "Prof Jones will provide strategic guidance and team management". The point being that if you and your co-investigators decide to do something else with your lives, it will be up to ProfJones to find people to replace you so the research can still be provided to the institution's customer (ie the funder).

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    "Prof Jones will provide strategic guidance and team management": I'd guess that in some fields this is exactly (and only) what the PI does in any case. Their reputation is on the line, of course.
    – Buffy
    Nov 22 at 14:53
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    @Buffy Including my field. Nov 22 at 18:26
  • I disagree pretty strongly with your first sentence.it simply isn't true, at least for the NIH and NSF. It's hyperbolic, at best. Nov 22 at 22:33
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    @ScottSeidman. I'm british, so I don't really have experience of NIH or NSF. But its definitely true of the UKRI (United Kingdom Research and Innovation), the Wellcome Trust (the world's biggest charity funder of medical research) and ERC (the european research council). Nov 23 at 0:44
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    That's still different from a "guarantee" of employment for the life of the grant, which is what I meant by "hyperbolic". No counsel for any employer in the US would ever allow such a guarantee in writing. Also, the NIHand NSF don't ask for this, so "generally" is simply wrong. Nov 23 at 15:46
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I agree with Dan that you should not try to misrepresent the role of the PI, but this raises a broader issue that you seem to have avoided with the premise of your question. Presumably the university rule in question is there to ensure that there is an experienced researcher with a permanent faculty position leading and supervising the research. This has some obvious advantages in ensuring continuity of the research and ensuring that junior researchers can draw on the experience of a senior person. It is not too surprising that the university would impose such a requirement on a funding submission.

In view of this, you should rethink your approach of appointing a PI only as a "placeholder" to overcome a bureaucratic obstacle, and instead think about how you could have the PI perform the role that is the underlying goal of that rule. This would not only assist you to satisfy the university requirements for submission of the proposal, but more importantly, it would give you the benefits of experience and guaranteed continuity that is the underlying goal of this rule.

This would require you to find a PI who is willing to take on a genuine role as a "principal" in the research, which means taking responsibility for the progression of the research and supervising the more junior researchers. It is possible to construct the PI role in a way where it is largely managerial and supervisory rather than being involved in the nitty-gritty of the research, but it still invovles being the person in charge of the research project. The kinds of tasks that a PI could perform would include planning and management of the project, strategic guidance on research direction, supervision and development of junior researchers, review of research drafts and outputs, strategic guidance on appropriate outlets for publications or referees, and administration of grant funding and personnel decisions.

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    This is saying the same thing as my answer, but worded better. I didn't mean to suggest that the OP should misrepresent the role of the PI. Rather that that PI should genuinely provide "strategic guidance and team management". Nov 22 at 10:36
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    @IanSudbery: Don't worry --- I didn't for one second read your answer as suggesting misleading people. It is a great answer (+1). (My agreement with Dan was not intended to imply any disagreement with your answer.)
    – Ben
    Nov 22 at 12:36
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You can either acknowledge in the proposal that the PI will do nothing and “he’s just there to satisfy the university's requirement”, or you can try to hide that fact with misleading language and trickery.

If you hide that fact, then you are engaging in misrepresentation. This is unethical and borders on fraud.

If you acknowledge it, it wouldn’t be unethical, just foolish as the proposal will obviously not be funded.

Either way, this sounds like a bad idea. A PI has to actually want to be involved with the research they are signing up for as “principal investigator”.

For what it’s worth, as far as I’m aware it’s not an absolute requirement that the PI on an NSF proposal has to be a tenure track faculty. At my department we had some visiting assistant professors (a 3-year postdoc position) who submitted NSF grant proposals. This was a while ago, but I think it was enough that they included a letter from a tenured faculty member who said he’d be willing to take over the grant in the event of the PI’s departure. So I’d suggest checking with your institution if their policies might allow such an approach.

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    I think this is a university requirement, not a NSF requirement. When I was a postdoc my department told me I technically had to be the co-PI, and a tenured faculty agreed to be the PI, though he wasn't doing any work on the project. They told me the NSF knows about such situations and would be able to interpret the proposal appropriately.
    – Kimball
    Nov 22 at 6:09
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    @Kimball okay, as long as you didn’t make any misrepresentations in the proposal, I suppose that’s fine. If you did make misrepresentations, I wouldn’t consider the statement that the NSF “knows how to interpret it” to be a very good justification for this type of behavior. But perhaps other people would disagree — I have encountered people with very cavalier attitudes about the accuracy of the things they tell funding agencies.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 22 at 9:03
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    Sure, we didn't try to misrepresent anything, though I don't remember quite how we wrote it---I think that comment about the NSF being able to interpret it correctly was in response to me worrying it was weird that the proposal was just "The co-PI will do [X]" and not about what research the PI would do.
    – Kimball
    Nov 22 at 10:58
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    @Kimbal, I think your situation was most closely related to the situation described here. Could you please elaborate your experience as an answer.
    – Bilbo
    Nov 22 at 16:51

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