What is the difference between a project with Multiple Principal Investigators and Co-PIS? Well, it depends on the sponsor.
According to the NIH, changing from a single PI model to one of Multiple Principal Investigators (MPI) model has a goal: “to maximize the potential of team science efforts in order to be responsive to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.”
Why is it important to recognize the difference?
“A team science approach to research requires a different framework for building a strong interdisciplinary team,” said Ezemenari M. Obasi, Ph.D., in the Department of Psychological, Health, & Learning Sciences at the University of Houston (UH). Obasi often works in this capacity at UH.
The traditional NIH research project grants includes one PI working with subordinates on research. While this model works well, it doesn’t always work when there is collaboration among equals.
“The multi-PI option presents an important opportunity for investigators seeking support for projects or activities that require a team science approach. This option is targeted specifically to those projects that do not fit the single-PI model, and therefore is intended to supplement and not replace the traditional single PI model,” stated the NIH.
Follow the leader
For projects that require more than one PI, a Leadership Plan must be put in place. “A change from a multiple PI model to a single-PI model, or from a single-PI model to a multiple PI model, requires the prior approval of the IC Grants Management Officer and must be based on the scientific needs of the project.” All PIs are designated by the applicant institution, share equal responsibility and are not to be referred to as “co-PI” since this term is not used by the NIH. (The NSF uses the term Co-PI.)
The first PI listed on the grant or application will be the contact for the sponsor. This person is responsible for communications between the sponsor and the rest of the leadership team. Although it is an important role, it doesn’t imply that the contact PI is the main leader of the team. Plus, the role of contact PI can be switched easily if the sponsor is made aware.
In their own words…
In the Department of Psychological, Health, & Learning Sciences at the University of Houston, Lorraine R. Reitzel, Ph.D. and Ezemenari M. Obasi, Ph.D. are in the unique position that they have served as MPIs on a project (HEALTH-FAST (Helping Everyone Achieve a LifeTime of Health – Future Addiction Scientist Training) and as PI (Reitzel) and Co-I (Obasi) for another project entitled Taking Texas Tobacco Free.
“The multiple PI designation appropriately recognizes the contribution and leadership of more than one scientist to a project or program, when each brings potentially unique and integral skills to the application for funding and the execution of a funded proposal,” said Reitzel. “This is in contrast to status as a co-investigator, which suggests a more curtailed role.”
“Leveraging the MPI option provides an opportunity for shared leadership with equitable acknowledgement of each PI’s unique contributions to the research being proposed,” said Obasi.
Moving on up
“Policies related to applications from New Investigators and or Early Stage Investigators (ESIs) will be applied to multi-PI applications only when all PIs involved are classified as New Investigators and/or ESIs,” stated the NIH. And it goes on to say that successfully completing a role of a Multiple Principal Investigator on a substantial NIH independent research award is equivalent to serving as a PI on a single PI grant – and it will discontinue status as a New Investigator.
What’s the Big Idea?
If you are a part of a MPI-modeled project, make sure you have a thorough Leadership Plan – as Oregon State University worded it, there should be “a section of the proposal describing the rationale for choosing a multiple‐PI approach, as well as the governance and organizational structure of the leadership team and project.” The roles should be clear and the science will be phenomenal – a result of a great team effort.