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Summary: I want to apply for a grant with current group at university X. However, I will likely decline it if awarded because I actually want to work with different group at university Y (no hard offer yet though). Is it ethical to apply knowing I might decline the grant?


I am currently a post-doc and with my new PI we have discussed about me applying for a grant to get independent funding for another two years. I actually asked myself whether I can apply for a grant, since I prefer to be as independent as it gets, and also my mentors mentioned multiple times that it is rather important for an academic CV.

Now after being a while in the group, and after learning that two of my friends got PI positions in quite prestigious universities, I am thinking to spend only a year here, and then move on to work with one of them.

However I would still like to finalise the grant proposal I am prepairing and submit it, so that I can have an awarded grant on my CV, even though there are chances that I will not accept it if awarded.

Would that be considered questionable or unethical practice?

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    Do you have a job offer in hand? No? Apply for the grant..,
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 9, 2023 at 16:59
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    Every time I see a question on here of the form "is X unprofessional", I'm tempted to assert that it's off-topic, because we're not professionals, we're academics. Jul 11, 2023 at 9:43
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    @DanielHatton, as a staff member who supports academics, I can assure you that I am a professional and expect professionalism from my faculty. It's disappointing how many faculty think they are not part of the professional working world and thus treat staff without the respect they deserve. Like it or not, colleges and universities function like businesses, and being thoughtful to staff should be a basic consideration. Jul 11, 2023 at 12:36
  • @yourfriendlyresearchadmin Of course treating people with respect is important (and ofteneglected). I was thinking of "professional" having undertones of someone who services a client, with goals defined by the client. Jul 11, 2023 at 13:21
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    As an example of what I mean -- research administrators often shift their personal lives around, including staying up until wee hours of the morning to get proposals done, but then the PI will decide not to submit. I have a friend who last month worked on a proposal the night before she had surgery on her gallbladder. After she came back, the PI decided not to do it after all. If you look at the research of Jennifer Shambrook, you'll find the profession is associated with poor health outcomes. Part of their own self-interest should be retaining their support staff by setting expectations. Jul 11, 2023 at 16:13

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Research administrator here (the type of person's time you would waste preparing this, haha). The first problem you have is that as a postdoc, you are generally not entitled to apply for a grant by definition of your position. You need to look into how PI rights work at your current institution. At the R1 institution I work for, we would not allow you to apply without a ladder faculty member listed as Co-PI/Co-I. There is a somewhat lengthy application to discourage postdocs from applying without the full support of their PI and a substantial plan of action in the event of an award. As the grant is awarded to the institution and not the PI, should you leave, we would reserve the right to keep the grant and remove you from the research team.

Generally when academics transfer institutions, it is best practice to move the grant with the researcher, however it is the discretion of the institution to do this; not the PI. If the Dean or Chair wished to keep the grant with your sponsoring PI, they could do so. We always require a plan as to what happens when someone transfers out before allowing these types of individuals to apply for a sponsored award. If they have a position in hand, we ask that they apply through their new institution. They can usually do this as long as the proposed start date is after the appointment start date.

As for wasting time -- the truth is that a great deal of proposals are a waste of time -- many faculty do not spend the time required to do a good job (and it's evident even to administrators), and that includes senior faculty at R1 institutions. You didn't mention scientific field or country, but in the US, NIH has K awards for what you describe. Otherwise, postdocs sometimes help prepare applications with their PI and in the US at least, can be instead listed as senior personnel rather than Co-PI/Co-I. This makes it easier to be included as "important" without requiring PI rights from the institution. Should you leave the institution after an award, you should be able to get a subaward at no additional cost with most US federal sponsors.

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    "as a postdoc, you are generally not entitled to apply for a grant by definition of your position". Not true. The eligibility of a postdoc to apply for a grant depends on the specifics of the position and the grant, and, at least in Europe, there are examples of grants that post-docs can apply for, and that are generally supported by host institutions. If the PI encourages OP to apply, it's likely that it's possible in this case. Jul 10, 2023 at 19:06
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    It will of course vary by location. In the US, it is frequently prohibited except for postdoc fellowship type awards. My advice still stands -- one should check to make sure they are even allowed to submit a grant before worrying about accepting it. Here's an example of the policy for MIT: research.mit.edu/research-policies-and-procedures/… Here is Stanford: doresearch.stanford.edu/policies/research-policy-handbook/… Jul 10, 2023 at 20:56
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    @yourfriendlyresearchadmin In some countries you definitely can submit a grant proposal as a postdoc. It is like a fellowship, but it is bound to a specific lab. The PI of course and the host uni have to agree, but the grant belongs to you, and the evaluation is based on your own CV. Jul 12, 2023 at 17:58
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    @yourfriendlyresearchadmin Your mindset is a little bit constrained by thinking I am talking about the US system. I don't. In Europe there are GRANTS that are targeted to PostDocs. Not fellowships, does not require you to be a group leader. Personal grant for a specific project. Moreover I know that in large collaborative grants PostDocs can be co-PIs on projects Jul 16, 2023 at 14:17
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    @yourfriendlyresearchadmin Well, the DFG grants are a counterexample to the idea that grants and fellowships are distinct, non-overlapping concepts, and that fellowships only fund individuals (e.g., the Individual Fellowship is awarded based on a project description). I'm not aware of any such pages like the ones you mention. In the countries and universities I've worked in, such policies are decided on the level of the department, often on a per-call basis, and there is no clear "default". Jul 17, 2023 at 13:37
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If you cannot envision a scenario in which you would accept the grant money, then you should not apply. It is a waste of everybody's time (including your own—why waste your time applying for a grant you aren't going to accept when you could be spending your time doing something productive?).

On the other hand, if you can see a scenario (however unlikely) in which you would accept the grant, there is no reason not to apply.

It sounds to me like you are searching for a job. You are hoping to get a good "PI position" at a prestigious university, so I assume that you are applying for those kinds of positions. You also have the option of applying for grant funding which will allow you to continue in your current position for some period of time (with the added bonus that it will be a CV builder).

Also, note that, depending on how the grant is structured, you may be able to "take it with you" if-and-when you are offered a position somewhere else, or your current institution may be able to use the funding even if you are not there. So the likelihood that you will accept the grant (assuming it is awarded, which is not a certainty) may be influenced by these kinds of factors.

Hence it seems like there is a scenario under which you would take the grant money, i.e. you are not offered any other position, and require independent funding for the next year or two. As such, I see no problem with applying for the grant.

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  • I am not currently searching for a job, I am just some months in my new position. But there is still some chance that if awarded I will take the money. Jul 9, 2023 at 17:14
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    @can'tstopmenow Your current position is a postdoc position, right? Then you are, almost by definition, looking for a job. For most intents and purposes, the academic job market exists for about a month and a half every year. You have two or three cycles during your postdoc. If you aren't putting yourself out there every year, you are probably hurting yourself in the long term. :D Jul 9, 2023 at 17:15
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    Touché............ Jul 9, 2023 at 17:18
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From an R1, U.S. math perspective, you absolutely should apply for a grant at the post-doc stage, and accept it, so that you can (?!?) be a PI on a grant... whether or not you need money for anything. For some decades now, having National Science Foundation grants or other federal funding is really essential for getting tenure... because having the federal government pay you to do your work is apparently the highest praise? :)

And, very likely any grant is portable to some extent...

So, again, to be clear, it's not necessarily whether you need the money for equipment or summer salary or anything, but that getting a good grant funded is some sort of certification of the quality of your work.

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    In some universities, it may not be possible for post-docs to be PIs, at least not officially.
    – Timmy
    Jul 10, 2023 at 18:41
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    @Timmy Sure, but there are other kinds of grants which may provide funding for postdocs without those postdocs being the PI. I don't know of any such grants off the top of my head, but I know that the NSF (for example) has grants for first and second year graduate students. Jul 12, 2023 at 17:17
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    @Timmy Depends on the country and the founding agency you apply to. There are grants for postdocs, than need a hosting agreement from a PI, but they belong to the postdoc and not to the PI. However, they are bound to a specific uni/lab and cannot be moved like grants for PIs can sometimes move between universities. Jul 12, 2023 at 18:00

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