Create a Strong Multiple PI Leadership Plan

Funding News Edition: November 17, 2021
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NIAID researcher uses an electron microscope.

Avoid stating that all principal investigators will take joint responsibility for everything—finances, project direction, and necessary scientific expertise.

Credit: NIAID

If your grant application includes more than one program director/principal investigator (PD/PI), use the advice in this article to help you craft the required Leadership Plan.

Your reviewers will factor in the quality of your plan when they score the investigators criterion and overall impact of your application. They will judge the plan’s scientific merit and whether it promotes enough coordination, communication, and conflict resolution among PIs.

Cover Required Points

Before you and your fellow PIs get started on the plan itself, discuss the aspects NIH requires you to cover. They include:

  • Rationale and justification for choosing the multiple PI approach
  • Team governance and organizational structure
  • Conflict resolution procedures
  • Decision process for scientific direction and allocating funds and resources

Many sections of NIH’s SF 424 (R&R) Application Guide include special instructions for multiple PI applications. Read these carefully and follow any multiple PI instructions in your chosen funding opportunity. For more information, check Section C. Grant Application Format and Content in NIH’s Frequently Asked Questions for Multiple Principal Investigators.

Consider These Tips

To help your team draft a solid Leadership Plan, here is a quick overview of the advice on NIAID’s Multiple Principal Investigators page.

New investigators, be aware that the multiple PI approach has benefits and downsides for you. For example, if you have an established investigator as the second PI, the application is not eligible for the special new investigator payline. Learn more in NIAID’s Should New PIs Consider a Multiple PI Application? section.

When a multiple PI application includes an established researcher and a more junior investigator, reviewers will carefully evaluate the time commitment and plans for decision making and resource allocation. Although the level of effort of each PI on a multiple PI application—whether established or junior—does not have to be the same, it does need to be appropriate, equitable, and justified for the work proposed.

Ask and answer questions. Your team can discuss and address questions such as the following: Why multiple PIs? How will we organize and execute the overall project? How will we address problems? What provisions can we make ahead of time against potential pitfalls?

Provide a strong rationale. You must justify choosing the multiple PI approach. Since the multiple PI option is for collaborative, usually multidisciplinary research, be sure to explain why your proposed research requires other PIs with distinct and complementary leadership and expertise.

Without a clear scientific rationale, your reviewers will likely question why your project needs the other PIs. You should also avoid bringing in additional PIs solely because they are prominent in your field. Their prominence does not give you any benefit and can detract from your score if they don’t have a truly distinct and independent role in the project.

Go beyond the minimum requirements. While good plans address the required points we mentioned in the section above, the best plans go a step further. You could cover additional ground by discussing other potentially sensitive issues, such as data sharing among PIs, collaborative publication policies, contingency plans in case one PI changes institutions, and procedures for allocating resources.

Emphasize conflict resolution. Your team agreed to work together because you assume it will go well, so it’s easy to overlook or minimize how you will handle disputes. Be sure to plan a thorough process for resolving conflicts and disputes. What provisions can you make ahead of time to avoid potential disagreements?

Reviewers like to see a carefully considered conflict resolution plan, which preferably includes the involvement of well-respected people outside of the project to mediate disputes if the PIs are unable to resolve the issues by themselves. If you can't come to an agreement, will you bring in an arbitration committee? If so, who and how many people will be on it? Will you set a timeframe to resolve the conflict?

Get organized. Just like exemplary Research Plans, the best Leadership Plans are typically organized into succinct sections or paragraphs with informative headings (e.g., Rationale, Organizational Structure, and Procedures for Resolving Conflicts). A plan with sections is easier for your reviewers to read and helps them find answers for any questions they may have.

Since the Leadership Plan has no page limit and does not count toward the Research Strategy page limit, use the lack of space constraints to include what you need and present the information in an easy-to-find way. That said, do not use this plan as a way to circumvent the page limit for the Research Strategy section.

Avoid pitfalls. Weaker Leadership Plans tend to suffer pitfalls such as poor organization, lack of specifics on roles and responsibilities, omitting critical information like plans for deciding scientific direction or resolving conflicts, and projecting an attitude of “trust us, we’ve been working together for years.” Plans with faults like these may sometimes pass scrutiny by reviewers, but you are better off submitting the best plan you can.

Detail specific roles. Reviewers expect to see Leadership Plans that clearly and specifically delineate the PIs' respective roles and responsibilities.

Avoid stating that all PIs will take joint responsibility for everything—finances, project direction, and necessary scientific expertise. Reviewers usually view that idea as unrealistic since even the closest collaborators will disagree sometimes. Therefore, reviewers will appreciate a sensible division of responsibilities much more than a frequently implemented conflict resolution procedure.

Be sure to list who will serve as contact PD/PI. That person must be affiliated with the institution submitting the application, coordinate communication among all PIs and NIH, and complete progress reports.

Craft a sound organizational and governance plan. Convince reviewers that your planned level of coordination and communication among the PIs will be sufficient to fully realize the collaborative aspects of the project. Describe your process for deciding scientific direction and communication procedures, such as regularly scheduled meetings of the PIs, periodic evaluation of research progress and finances, and publication policies.

For complex awards, consider a diagram or organization chart to help convey your organizational structure in addition to your governance plan.

Find examples, but don’t recycle. For inspiration, check NIH’s Examples of Project Leadership Plans for Multiple PI Grant Applications and the multiple PI NIAID Sample Application. You could even ask your colleagues for a copy of a plan they used for a successful application.

However, we advise against copying other plans—or even your own team’s previous plan—too closely. If you simply recycle a plan from a different application, you risk undermining reviewer confidence in your application. Make sure you completely customize your plan to reflect your specific project, team, and team roles.

Learn More About Multiple PI Applications

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