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I am a senior postdoc in a American university. My PI and myself have written a NIH grant that extends some of the work I have done. If awarded, it will have money to support me for next 3 years (starting Dec 2023).

However, I am actively also pursuing non-academic sources of income because of financial constraints. If I find a lucrative job (say 1 or 2 years into the grant), I will be inclined to take it.

Basically, at this point, I am simply interested in the grant so that it can fund me for the next 1-2 years while I look for good jobs/opportunities to transition out.

Now what happens to the grant money if I leave? Will my PI be in trouble if I leave ? Will NIH have issues that I am leaving midway?

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    Postdocs leaving is an expected event. Encouraged even. The money gets used to support someone else, the PI will not be in trouble...
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 11, 2023 at 15:55

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Research administrator here. The short and sweet answer is that this happens all the time and is expected, but there are multiple paths that can be taken depending on how essential you are to the research and how much involvement you want in the future on the project. Please note that "essential" is meant in terms of the sponsored programs concept "change in scope". Despite how many researchers may feel, any trainee-type position (students, postdocs) is generally included on grants as completely interchangeable, unnamed people. This means you leaving does not change the scope of the project. I am going to cover a few other scenarios for the sake of a complete answer, and then give you a bit of advice on how you make your final exit.

If you were written into the grant as senior/key personnel, and a commitment was made for you, the usual way to handle this departure would be via a "subaward at no additional cost", with an award set up at your new institution. It would cost your PI money to issue this subaward to your new institution -- the "no additional cost" means no additional cost to the sponsor. The idea here, is that you would note that you changed institutions and the costs assigned to you now need to move to a new location and this is not a change in scope, just an administrative change. You would reduce the amount of money available to your PI by the amount you are transferring to the new institution, plus any indirect costs associated with the subcontract as required by your institution's indirect cost rate agreement.

The main sticking point here is that you would need to argue that you specifically are important enough to go through the hassle of the subaward. I will say in managing grants for 15 years, I have worked with more than 70 PIs, and I have never seen someone do this for a postdoc. We replace the postdoc, and we submit a new proposal with the postdoc in their new position. This allows the postdoc to be named as a proper Co-I/Co-PI and write the proposal as an equal. It also skips a huge amount of paperwork.

In the case where you are written in as senior/key personnel and want out of the project, your PI would have to notify the sponsor that there is disengagement of a PI, and then the institution has to decide if they want to find a replacement PI or if they have to change the scope of the project. This is usually done very rarely, but it happens. I had a case where an Assistant Prof took a job in industry after a few years (in Robotics). He ended up staying as Co-PI on our grants as they finished out, but we had to adjust a lot of budgets/effort commitment with the sponsor. He became an "unfunded collaborator" and the funds were rebudgeted. On projects he was on by himself, they were all terminated early.

One note of etiquette for you -- your PI's research administrator is probably looking at costs on a regular basis, running projections based on existing and expected costs, and providing advice based on these variables. If you depart early, it can impact the ability to get the next increment of funding, depending on the sponsor (e.g., NIH and DOD can be this way) and the overall level of spending. If you sense you are getting close to the end, ensure that the PI knows to hire a successor to overlap briefly with you or that the gap between you will be small. Just last month, one of my PIs had a postdoc say he won't renew in September after just one year in the position. If we had known that in January, we would have hired a replacement. Now we have to wait another year to hire someone, and this puts us in an awkward spot with our funding. Needless to say, this hurt my PI deeply, and he has told me that he will not forget this. Be thoughtful in giving notice, and you may find a very smooth transition. These transitions are stressful enough for PIs without ill-timed surprises. Even if you do not require this PI to get you through an academic career, there is no reason to burn bridges. They expect you to leave, be thoughtful about the exit. They may remember and help you when you need it in the future.

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    Thanks for this thoughtful and well-written answer. Jul 12, 2023 at 15:03
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    Also, I am not a "co-PI" in the grant. The grant is built on my work but my PI is the one who wrote it and its in his name So in some sense, it makes it easier. Jul 12, 2023 at 15:07
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All sorts of options for situations exist, and are usually some sort of negotiation between the funding organizations and representatives of the universities involved (at least when we're talking about a faculty member moving-- postdocs have some other issues, which I'll get to eventually).

First, faculty members switch universities all the time, and try (usually successfully) to take their grants with them. The research contracts are almost always to the University, not to the investigators, who are just employees of the contract holders.

You might ask "why would a university awarded a research contract be willing to let it move to another university?" Well, there are a few reasons. The original holder, given that the key employee will no longer be there, may no longer be able to fulfill the contract without them. Also, sometimes faculty move out of a university, sometimes they move in. The receiving university will find that if they oppose letting grant money travel with exiting employees, that other universities will oppose grants moving to that receiving university. It may also tick off portfolio managers at the funding institutions.

Let's kick the complexity up a notch. Let's say Prof A, the primary grant holder, has a collaboration with Prof B at the same university on this hypothetical grant. What happens if Prof B moves? Well, lots of things can happen. If Prof B is done with their share of the research, simply removing prof B from subsequent years of the grant is certainly an option. If prof B is important, and the research needs to continue, the grant can often be modified such that the original uni cuts an annual check to the new uni to cover research expenditures under the grant. If Prof B's contributions are huge, the grant may need to be modified to convert some of the ongoing funds to more of a consortium arrangement. You find out what the funding institution wants to do by talking to them. Universities usually have staff capable of initiating these conversations with the funders.

the issues are similar if Prof A moves.

Now, what about postdoc funding. The devil here is all in the details, and depends heavily on the details of the grant. If the postdoc is simply an employee on a PI's grant, the PI may simply choose to hire a new postdoc, and cut out the original postdoc. This seems most like your case to me, but I can certainly be wrong. Would you be "key personnel" on the grant, or would you be a co-Investigator? If you're the former, chances are lower that the money would follow you.

If the grant is a development grant for the postdoc, the funding institution may well demand that the money follow the postdoc. There are probably dozens of other situations and in-betweens here, but without knowing more details, real answers are difficult.

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    With NIH, per the Grants Policy Statement, the disengagement of Key Personnel could force a change in scope and require prior approval. It also matters if they are listed as a PI on the NOA. I just want to be clear that senior/key personnel is the level that formal commitments to the sponsor generally begins -- not Co-I/Co-PI. grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/nihgps/HTML5/section_8/… Jul 11, 2023 at 22:04

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