I have a situation similar to the question asked here, with some differences.

I am getting ready to submit an NSF grant proposal (as a PI). On this project, I'd like to work closely with a post-doc researcher, Dr. X, in another university, whose expertise is quite important for the success of this project. My original plan is to have a sub-award for the other university and have Dr. X as a co-PI. In the proposal we highlighted the important role Dr. X will play. Without Dr. X, this proposal will be quite a bit weaker, and probably require a complete rewrite.

We just found out that Dr. X's university as a strange rule: Post-docs cannot be PIs, even for sub-awards. This university's research office suggest including a tenured/tenure-track faculty member as a PI (of the sub-award), but internally, Dr. X will be considered a PI and (presumably) has reporting responsibly.

I imagine this must be a common situation. I wonder how is it usually handled? Would it be reasonable to include a PI (of the sub-award) whose main role is to be a place-holder?

The important difference between the situation I have and that describe in the other question is that I (tenured) will be the PI, so there's no problem there. The only problem is with the sub-award (Dr. X cannot be the PI of the sub-award; someone else in the university must be the PI, and Dr. X could be the co-PI).

  • The figurehead puts their reputation on the line, of course. Make sure they understand that.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 17:52
  • @Buffy, yes, we'll make sure they understand that. That leads to another question: Is it insulting to ask someone to just be a figurehead?
    – Timmy
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 17:57
  • Probably you ask them to be a "monitor" or "mentor" as mentioned by Wolfgang Bangergh.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 18:03

1 Answer 1


Subaward or not, someone has to be the PI at the other university and if (as is commonly the case) the postdoc can't be that person, then you need to find someone else to fill that role. So yes, go with that approach, and make it clear in the narrative that the PI you chose has no real role other than formal oversight (and possibly mentoring).

But while we're talking, why do you want to with a subaward? Subwards cost unnecessary money because both universities take out some overhead. If you already have someone who needs to fill the role of PI at the other end, why not go with a collaborative proposal?

  • Will the narrative in which "...the PI you chose has no real role other than formal oversight..." hurt the proposal's chance?
    – Timmy
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 18:00
  • @Timmy I believe that generally speaking if you honestly and faithfully explain what you are doing, then reviewers accept that. But people are good at smelling it when they are being misled, and it is probably a good idea to not try and weasel yourself out of describing what you are doing. Of course, it all depends if that PI draws a salary: If they are, you will need to explain why and what for. As a general rule, good proposals explicitly describe what each participant will be doing. Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 21:23

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