Applying for funding
The PDC intends to investigate this topic further and develop guidance on the good practice regarding including postdocs and researchers on grants.
Roles on grants and funders policy
Pease note: different funders may use different terms to refer to the same roles. The page below includes terms most commonly used so far, but UKRI introduced new terms for their calls when launching their new funding system in 2023. This includes 'Project Lead' (PL instead of PI), 'Project co-Lead' (PcL instead of CoI), 'Researcher co-Lead' (RcL instead of RCoI) etc. (details on UKRI website).
Grants are allocated to a Principal Investigator (PI), as well as multiple Co-Investigators (CoI) in the case of collaborative grants.
- The PI is usually the academic at the origin of the project idea and is responsible for the general management of the project and reporting progress to the funder.
- The CoIs assist the PI in managing the project and are often responsible for separate aspects of the work (usually defined as Work Packages, WP). The CoIs can be based in different institutions and bring complementary expertise to the one of the PI.
- The "named researchers" are identified research staff that would be employed to carry out the work if the grant was awarded. They often have been involved to some extend in the development of the proposal but it isn't an obligation. A grant doesn't need research staff to be named at the application stage and often don't; the positions are then advertised and candidates invited to interview. Being a named researcher can be a way for postdocs to secure another position without having to interview.
While this depends on the funder and the specific grant call, the PI and CoIs almost always need to be already employed by a research organisation, either permanently or during the entire duration of the grant. This doesn't include being employed by another grant that needs to be delivered. This means that postdocs and researchers employed on fixed-term contracts are usually not eligible for these positions.
UK Research and Innovation have created a new status for some of their funding schemes: Researcher co-investigator (RCoI). A RCoI is a person who is not eligible to be a PI or CoI, such as a postdoc, but who is significantly involved in the design, writing and delivery of the grant proposal. At the time of writing, this role was supported by the MRC, BBSRC, NERC and EPSRC.
Note that short grants for small sums of money may allow postdocs to be PIs, as well as fellowships, which are personal awards including the salary of the applicant.
Queen's Research Application System (RAS)
There is usually some confusion around the purpose of RAS and what being listed on it means. RAS is an internal system designed to record applications, flag needs to co-ordinate appropriate support for applicants (from the Research Development team, the Governance team etc.), enable the costing of the application (exchanges between the Faculty Research Finance team and PI), help with accountancy and provide research funding data for institutional reports. It is not used to look at individual performance and has absolutely no meaning to external institutions.
The RAS system requires the PI to be a permanently-employed academic. The only exceptions to this are fully-independent fellows (at equivalent level to Vice-Chancellor's Fellows or UKRI Future Leaders Fellows) in the process of setting up their own group, and fellowship applicants, since the postdoc is the fellowship's PI. In the case of fellowships, an academic from Queen's need to be listed as CoI for the postdoc to be listed as PI. External postdocs applying for a fellowship at Queen's have to be listed as CoI at the application stage (with their mentor being PI), because the system only allows PIs to be selected from the existing staff database. This of course doesn't change the fact that they are the principal applicant on the actual funding application.
When postdocs are significantly involved in the proposal development and will be delivering some of the work (and the funder allows it), they can be listed as CoI on RAS, upon request from the PI. They would usually also be a named researcher on the grant.
As mentioned above, appearing on RAS (or not) doesn't reflect the involvement of postdocs and researchers in the grant; RAS is just a tool and what matters is what is listed on the application submitted to the funder and what you contributed to, which you should highlight on your CV.
However, it transpired that the information from RAS was at times used by senior management to identify individuals to send a congratulation email to for successful grants above a certain threshold. This resulted in postdocs who had been involved in the proposal development not receiving the email because they weren't listed on the system. The PDC thus requested in 2020 that a new field in the internal RAS system was added to capture the contribution of postdocs (or other staff) to grant applications when they are not PI or CoI. This will enable all important contributors to feel valued and to be included in congratulations communications.
Some considerations for postdocs seeking titles on grant applications
- As mentioned multiple times, whatever you did for a proposal is experience worth listing on your CV, title or not.
- Have a talk with the other applicants, including your line manager, about your role and if a CoI or RCoI title are relevant. Your contributions may be very important but yet not align with the requirements. This is not just about what you have contributed to the proposal, but also the role you will play in managing the grant if awarded. If they are relevant though, then being CoI will enable you to develop and demonstrate leadership capability more easily.
- If your salary won't be paid from the grant being applied for but from another grant, having you listed as CoI, with plans to undertake and lead a significant part of the work, may breach the terms and conditions of the grant employing you (which requires you to focus on the funded work for a high proportion of your time) and may not be possible. This is the reason why postdocs can't normally be CoI on grants on which they are not also named researcher.
- Being listed as PI on significant funding may exclude you from later applying for some fellowships or funding schemes for Early Career Researchers like New Investigator Awards. Different funders will have different rules to identify someone as new investigator, and it could exclude people who have been PIs on a grant and/or who were responsible for the management of a postdoc.
- Another strategic point: PIs and CoIs are leadership positions. The overall level of experience of the PI and CoIs will influence how the grant review panel will feel about the ability of the team to successfully deliver the work. Having too many lead applicants at the early stages of their career may potentially impact the chances of the grant to be funded and should be discussed with the applicant team, the research development team and potentially even seek feedback from the funder.