Gray areas when defining key researchers

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Senior/Key Person

The NIH defines a Senior/Key Person as an individual who contributes to the “scientific development or execution of a project in a substantive, measurable way, whether or not they request salaries or compensation.” While this seems like a clear definition, there are gray areas in who meets these criteria, and when to use the Other Significant Contributor or Consultant designations.

Case 1
Dr. X would like to identify a non-faculty person such as a Postdoctoral Fellow, Research Assistant, or Lab Technician on his R01 proposal as a Senior/Key Person. Is this appropriate under NIH policy?

Whether or not someone should be named as Senior/Key Person on a grant application is based on the nature of the individual’s contribution to the project rather than on the individual’s position or title. In the case of a non-faculty position, it is especially important to assess what work the person in question will be doing, and why they are uniquely qualified to do it. To be named as a Senior/Key Person, a non-faculty person should have skills or training not held by their peers that are necessary for the proposal. For example, if the non-faculty person completed a fellowship that contributed to the development of preliminary data for the proposal he or she should be listed as a Senior/Key Person in the case above. If, however, the non-faculty person only completed basic laboratory training, he or she should not be listed as a Senior/Key Person because such basic training does not confer unique qualifications.

Case 2
Dr. Y, who is not affiliated with Dr. Z’s institution, will be providing a mouse model to Dr. Z for her R01 proposal. Should Dr. Y be considered a Senior/Key Person on the project or should Dr. Y’s role be Consultant or Other Significant Contributor?

Much like with Case 1, whether or not Dr. Y should be a Senior/Key Person depends on the particulars of the role he will be playing in the proposed project. More specifically, the critical difference would be whether Dr. Y is making an essential contribution to the project where he cannot be replaced without significantly affecting the direction or conduct of the project, or simply providing access to specialized knowledge or resources such as a mouse model. If we find that Dr. Y is providing the mouse model to Dr. Z with no further interaction or guidance, than he should not be included as a Senior/Key Person on the proposal. If, however, in addition to the mouse model Dr. Y is providing research guidance to Dr. Z, he should be listed as a Senior/Key Person.

Further, if Dr. Y’s contribution is not measureable but goes beyond simply providing a mouse model, he likely fits into the project as Other Significant Contributor (a type of Senior/Key Person), which does not require a time commitment from Dr. Y and can be accomplished with effort on “as needed” basis. If it is planned that Dr. Y will contribute to the research in a way that is measurable and requires a time commitment, the appropriate role for him would be Consultant.

As evidenced by the two cases presented above, the designation of Senior/Key Person can be a gray area. To determine the appropriate designation we recommend asking the PI pointed questions about the roles of collaborators on their project. For those individuals who meet the definition of Senior/Key Person, also make sure that their responsibilities are well justified within the personal statement of the biosketch and in the budget justification. This will ensure that roles of these individuals are clear both internally at your institution and to the NIH reviewers.


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