What’s in a name?

A vinyl figure of a human-like creature with long ears sticking up from its head has the iconic "Hello my name is" graphic look applied to it. The figure holds a black permanent, Sharpie-like marker in its left hand.

The power of a name has long been immortalized in poetry, mythology, prose, religious and other ceremonies. Countless books are on the market for soon-to-be parents citing the etymology and history behind thousands and thousands of names. A recent search in the book department on Amazon.com yielded 125,407 results of books on baby naming, some books touting over 100,000 names from which to choose!

Similar to the power of a name, the power and value of a title, especially in higher education, is of utmost importance. Between our BAs, BSs, CPAs, CRAs, DMDs, EdDs, DPAs, DVMs, LDs, MAs, MFAs, MDs, MDivs, ODs, PhDs, (the list goes on an on, with over 80 listed on the NSF FastLane site alone), those well-earned titles are important — and rightfully so. Also important is how individuals are identified or named in proposals. Proper identification helps reviewers to understand a person’s or organization’s role on the project. For instance, who is ultimately responsible for the direction of the project? Can more than one person assume leadership of the project? Why is it important to differentiate between consultants, vendors, and subaward organizations?

Elementary, you might think, but not always. Often investigators need our assistance in specifying how people should be identified in the proposal and in the proposal budget. To help clarify, below are some commonly used titles that appear in grant proposals, along with definitions and examples to help our investigators distinguish between appropriate titles or designations.

Principal Investigator (PI): The PI is often the lead scientist for a given project. The primary PI on a proposal or contract serves as the point of contact for that proposal or application. Often times the sponsoring agency will define the qualifications of a person who can serve as a PI. Additionally, institutions often define who can, as well as who cannot, service as a PI on a proposal for their institution.

Project Director (PD): At times, the PI and PD designations are used interchangeably. For instance, the NIH often uses the term PD/PI to represent “…the individual(s) judged by the applicant organization to have the appropriate level of authority and responsibility to direct the project or program supported by the grant.” There are times however, that a proposal might have a PI and a PD, with the PI acting as the fiscal representative for the grant, while the PD oversees the daily operations of the project or of a specific program.

Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI): More often than not, investigators forget that “co” signifies jointly or together. The term Co-PI implies a sharing of responsibility, and thus a sharing of scholarly credit for a given endeavor. Some agencies allow for multiple Co-PIs. Within the last few years, the NIH prohibited the use of Co-PI and opted in favor of a PI with co-investigators or a multi-PD/PI option. Investigators choosing the multi-PD/PI option are required to develop a leadership plan that outlines the roles and responsibilities of each PI, the fiscal management of the funds by each PI, the processes for making decisions on the scientific direction of the project, as well as allocation of resources, how data will be shared among investigators, ownership of intellectual property and publications, and procedures for resolving conflicts should they occur.

Co-Investigator (Co-I): The label “Co-Investigator” started being used more frequently when the NIH stopped allowing the use of Co-PI and encouraged instead the use of either multi-PD/PI lead projects or co-investigators. According to the NIH, a co-investigator is “An individual involved with the PD/PI in the scientific development or execution of a project…”

Senior Personnel: Often times the terms “senior personnel” and “key personnel” are used interchangeably. A senior or key person is an individual who contributes to the scientific development or execution of the project in a substantive and measurable way. Senior or key personnel are often given titles of principal investigator, project director, co-principal investigator, and co-investigator.

Key Personnel: (a.k.a., senior personnel). I recently read what I thought was a very telling, succinct exclusion definition of “key personnel.” According to PCORI (Patient –Centered Outcomes Research Institute), “…anyone who could be replaced without significantly affecting the direction or conduct of the project should not be listed as key personnel.” If you are wondering, “Should I list my graduate student as key personnel?” you can ask yourself “could any graduate student with similar training and qualifications fill that role?”

Other Personnel: The “other personnel” category is used to capture personnel who are not senior or key to the proposal. These are usually people who are not committing any specific measurable effort to the project and can be replaced without significantly affecting the aims of the project. Usually graduate students, undergraduate students, postdoctoral fellows, lab technicians, IT professionals, and clerical support are included in the “other personnel” category.

Participant: I once received a collaborative budget that listed all of PI’s travel, travel for graduate students, and all of the undergraduate student travel under “Participant Support” in an NSF proposal. Their reasoning was that they had to travel to conduct the research, thus their travel costs should fall under “Participant Support.” Luckily for me, NSF has a very tight definition of what they consider “Participant Support.” According to the NSF Grant Proposal Guide, the participant support “… budget category refers to costs of transportation, per diem, stipends and other related costs for participants or trainees (but not employees) in connection with NSF-sponsored conferences, meetings, symposia, training activities and workshops.” It is important to carefully consider what goes into this category as some sponsors (like the NSF) and some F&A rate agreements do not allow overhead to be taken on participant support costs. Additionally, it is often times difficult to move funds out of this category once awarded.

Consultant: A consultant is an individual (or company) hired to provide a professional service or give professional advise for a fee. Typically consultants are not officers or employees of the performing organization and use their own equipment/materials (though some exceptions may apply).

Patient(s): For granting purposes, a patient is an individual or individuals who have or have had the condition under study. The category of “patient” may also include patient surrogates or caregivers.

Subawardee: It is often necessary to distinguish between a subaward organization (a.k.a., subawardee) and a vendor for reimbursement or procurement purposes. A subaward organization is one in which individuals (or an individual) from that organization are contributing to the scholarly or scientific conduct of the project as described in a statement of work for the organization. Often times the key personnel listed in a subawardee budget are included as PIs, Co-PIs, or co-investigators on the grant proposal.

Vendor: A vendor differs from a subaward organization in that they are a distributor or merchant who provides goods and services to many different purchasers. Vendors typically operate in a competitive environment, and while their goods and services contribute to the operation of the project, they do not contribute to the scientific conduct of the project.

While the list above is not 100% comprehensive, it does cover a good deal of the commonly used terms typically found in grant proposals. As always, it is of utmost importance to check your sponsor’s guidelines and terminology definitions before adopting the use of any nomenclature (i.e., stick to your sponsor’s terminology). Careful selection of the appropriate term will help define the roles that a particular individual or entity will play on the project.

Written by Tricia Callahan, Director of Proposal Development, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Image by Flickr user Robert Occhialini, used under Creative Commons license.

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