There’s a lot of paranoid insanity over at writedit’s blog these days, which is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I’m glad so many folks are finding some place online to ask their questions about the NIH process. It can be maddeningly opaque to the newcomers at times and having been there myself, I sympathize. On the other hand….some of the questions make me really question whether these people can possibly be capable of running a lab with such cluelessness.

Then there are the questions that are initially maddening but on reflection are worth discussing. This may or may not be one of them. One JaneyC asked:

My NIH R15 grant proposal got a score of 20 recently. The payline was 24 in the September 2011 and January 2012. The PO was very positive that I will be awarded the R15 in June. The problem for me is that I have accepted a job offer from a top research one university which is not eligible for R15. My last day of employment is late August at the present institution. I met the grant officer in the current institution, and she suggested me not to inform NIH at this moment. Rather she will contact NIH after the council meeting for funding in June, and try to switch PI for this grant. Should I contact the PO in June and explain my situation? I just want to make good connection with the PO for future funding opportunities. Thanks a lot.

Now let us all remember the mantra….a grant is awarded to the institution, not to the PI. It is their award, not “your” award. And it is most certainly in the interests of the University not to queer the deal in any way. That means, “let’s not rock the boat” when the NIH appears ready to fund a given award.

In this case, it would appear that the grant should issue as a July 1 start. So technically the University could accept the award with “JaneyC” as the PI, get it started and one month later say “Whoops, the PI is leaving. We propose elevating the co-PI or co-I (or some other local investigator) to the PI slot on this grant”. The thinking here is that a done-deal award is much less likely to be pulled back.

I would make that assumption myself. Always better to let the grant fund and then ask to swap out personnel later, if you ask me. The R15 is a bit weird but if it were an R01, wel I’ve seen some serious kickback when an institution proposes swapping PIs prior to award. Enough so that if the University can credibly try to let on that they have no idea the PI was leaving when they accepted the award, it’s worth doing.

but the original PI has concerns:

I just want to make good connection with the PO for future funding opportunities.

Indeed. Technicalities are all well and good but if you’ve read my ramblings over the years, you know good relationships with Program Officers can mean a lot. Like, the difference between “sorry” and an out-of-order pickup of your grant application that juuuuuuuust missed the payline. That’s important.

The PO could be annoyed at the University under the above strategy for two reasons. One, just a generic annoyance at the lack of courtesy. It seems like better manners to inform the PO about anything major that will affect the award at the earliest possible convenience. A sort of “just in case you wanted to weigh in” kind of thing. Especially given that the R15/AREA mechanism is so focused on the University itself…the risks seem low that the PO would be bothered. The second reason could be if the PO really does have an issue related to the PI of the application. They are (I surmise) well within their rights to complain about University shenanigans expressing the full force of their “rights” with respect to the award. The PO might just block the funding of the award.

Now given that, what are the odds the PO would be annoyed with the PI in a case like this. If s/he doesn’t bother to pick up the phone and inform the PO of the imminent departure. Now again, we have to reflect that this is a grant which cannot be transferred to just any other institution, unlike the R mechanisms. So it wouldn’t be quite so weird, right? The application’s PI might be justified in simply walking away with no further comment. Especially after being told directly by the University contracts and grants people not to call the PO. This gives the original PI a nice little excuse after the fact. After s/he’s arrived at NewU and the R15 has been awarded to OldU and all that.

I’m thinking that you, the PI, keep your own counsel in a case like this.