Definition of a Principal Investigator

The University research community has an interest in recognizing both the holder of the award with the sponsor and the person serving as institutional oversight (if different). In order to accomplish this, the University research community recognizes two types of eligible Principal Investigators: (1) the Sponsor PI and (2) the U-M PI.


The University recognizes the applicant to the sponsor as the sponsor Principal Investigator. The institution will allow anyone employed by Michigan who meets the sponsor's guidelines for eligibility to serve in this capacity. This situation corresponds to the PAF role of “U-M Sponsor Principal Investigator.”

The University will recognize the same individual as the U-M Principal Investigator as long as the employment criteria and level of independence associated with the current job title as defined below is met.

If the Sponsor Principal Investigator does not meet the University's criteria for U-M Principal Investigator, another individual meeting the requirements is to be named in order to provide internal guidance and leadership for the scientific, technical, administrative, and financial aspects of a sponsored project.

In most cases, the Sponsor-eligible Principal Investigator and U-M-eligible Principal Investigator will be the same individual and will be named in the U-M Principal Investigator field of the Proposal Approval Form (PAF). In cases when an individual does not qualify as both the Sponsor and U-M Principal Investigator, both must be named on the PAF--one as U-M Sponsor Principal Investigator and the other as U-M Principal Investigator.

Additionally, the University will recognize multiple individuals serving as Sponsor or U-M Principal Investigators when the sponsor explicitly allows it.

For the purposes of this policy statement, the term Principal Investigator shall encompass other sponsor-specific titles such as Project Director and Program Director that are commonly used for non-research sponsored projects.


A U-M Sponsor Principal Investigator is an employee or student of the University of Michigan who meets the eligibility requirements of the sponsor.

Certain sponsored project competitions are directed specifically to the support of individual students, fellows, or other non-permanent employees. Examples include doctoral dissertation awards and individual pre-and postdoctoral fellowship programs. The proposal format typically requires that the individual applicant (e.g., the student or fellow) be identified in the application as the Principal Investigator.

In these situations, that individual will be identified on the PAF as the Sponsor Principal Investigator. The designation should be used only in these circumstances and requires the designation of a separate U-M Principal Investigator on the PAF.

Requests for exceptions to the employee / student requirement can be considered, provided the individual has some other affiliation with the University (e.g., Visiting Scholar) and the unit head of the administrative home for the project endorses the request.

The U-M Principal Investigator is a University of Michigan employee having the background and training in scientific and administrative oversight necessary to conduct and manage a sponsored project. The individual must be treated by the appointing unit as an independent investigator and by the University as a non-temporary employee. The expectation is that eligible U-M PIs will submit proposals through their primary appointing unit unless other arrangements have been explicitly approved, by the units involved.

The U-M Principal Investigator is considered independent if s/he is a tenure-track faculty (Instructor through Professor), a research faculty (Research Investigator through Research Professor), or holds a Clinical professorial appointment. With unit approval, Emeritus faculty may also be appointed as U-M Principal Investigators.

In addition, Archivists, Curators, and Librarians in units that typically use these titles are eligible to serve as U-M Principal Investigators, if approved by the head of the unit.

Regardless of experience and education, Research Associates, Research Assistants, and other staff are not considered to be independent investigators. In general, only on rare occasions will personnel who are not tenure-track or research faculty be permitted to serve as U-M Principal Investigators on research projects.

If a U-M Principal Investigator leaves the University prior to the end of a sponsored project, leadership arrangements for the duration of the project should be discussed with the unit, ORSP, and the sponsor, in advance of departure. If the sponsored project is not being transferred to the PI’s new institution, a replacement  U-M PI must be named.  See the Post-award Change Request Form PI/Key Person Change for guidance on this process.


Each of the following is an exception to the generally applicable PI eligibility limitations described above. ORSP Project Representatives will review each PI exception request (process described below) and grant approval of the exception on a case-by-case basis. In some situations ORSP will consider the exception only if certain conditions are met:

Unit Heads are reminded that fiscal and program responsibility for the project may revert to their office if, for any reason, the Principal Investigator is unable to complete the assignment.

Multiple Principal Investigators

Two or more U-M Principal Investigators can be designated for a project if the sponsoring agency explicitly permits Multiple Principal Investigators or Co-Principal Investigators. The Multiple/Co-PIs share authority for leading and directing the project, intellectually, logistically, and financially. Each PI is responsible and accountable for the proper conduct of the project, including the submission of all required reports. The designation of Multiple or Co-U-M Principal Investigators for a single project diminishes neither the responsibility nor the accountability on any individual PI.

One of the Multiple/Co-U-M PIs must be designated as the Contact Principal Investigator.

Other Titles used for U-M Investigators in the eResearch Proposal Management System

Participating Investigator, With Specified Effort
Refers to other U-M investigators:

  1. who contribute in a substantive, measurable way to the scientific development or execution of the project,
  2. who generally are PI-eligible under existing U-M policies, and
  3. who have effort specified and quantified in the external proposal, whether or not salaries are requested.

    The Proposal Approval Form will be routed to the units for these individuals.

Participating Investigator, Without Specified Effort
Refers to other U-M investigators

  1. who are involved in the scientific development and execution of the project, and
  2. who generally are PI-eligible under existing U-M policies,
  3. but who have no specified or quantified effort in the external proposal.

    The Proposal Approval Form will not be routed to the units for these individuals.

Other Non-faculty Investigator
Refers to personnel who fit the description of investigator, but are in non-faculty positions. The Proposal Approval Form will not be routed to the units for these individuals.

Last reviewed: February 21, 2015