Senate approves trial plan that would allow MD postdoctoral fellows to serve as principal investigators on federal grants

Clinical fellows and MD postdoctoral scholars who win federal grants under the trial plan will be able to "hit the ground running" when they land their first faculty jobs.

L.A. Cicero Harry Greenberg at the Faculty Senate meeting

Harry Greenberg, senior associate dean for research at the School of Medicine, answers questions at the meeting regarding a resolution to refine exceptions to the current principal investigator policy.

To help the career development of physician-scientists-in-training – MDs who plan careers conducting research and treating patients – the Faculty Senate last week approved a trial plan to allow them to serve as the lead scientists on federal grants.

At its Dec. 2 meeting, the senate approved a four-year trial of a plan to allow clinical fellows and postdoctoral scholars holding MD or MD/PhD degrees to serve as principal investigators on grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

A principal investigator is the lead scientist or scholar with primary responsibility for the design and conduct of a well-defined research project, such as a laboratory study or a clinical trial.

At Stanford, serving as the principal investigator on a federal grant is a privilege largely limited to members of the Academic Council and the Medical Center Line.

Under the trial plan, up to 10 postdoctoral MD fellows a year will be able to submit grant applications – one time only – as principal investigators on projects.

In his presentation to the senate last Thursday, Harry Greenberg, senior associate dean for research at the School of Medicine, emphasized that the plan was an experiment – one that would be closely watched and carefully evaluated.

"What you have before you is a very limited proposal to evaluate whether we can provide certain exceptional postdoctoral MD fellows with the opportunity to get an R01 grant [Research Project Grant from the National Institutes of Health] that will help them in getting their first faculty position," said Greenberg, the Joseph D. Grant Professor in the School of Medicine.

Greenberg said physician-scientists-in-training at Stanford who win federal grants under the plan would be able to "hit the ground running" in their first faculty job, because the grant would give them "protected time" to launch their research.

He said physician-scientists who join the faculty of clinical departments in medical schools have two primary ways to earn money – clinical care and grants. Early in their careers, if they do not have independent grant support, they face tremendous economic pressure to shift more and more of their attention to patient care and away from research, due to financial constraints.

"This plan would permit people to have protected time from the beginning to get their research going and to protect them from having to do that clinical work right at the get-go," Greenberg said.

Given the low success rate – currently less than 10 percent of people who apply for NIH grants win funding – and the federal agency's shrinking budget, he said he doesn't expect many MD postdoctoral fellows at Stanford will win R01 grants.

Under the plan, which is described in full in documents posted on the Faculty Senate's website, they would receive career development award waivers from Stanford's current policy, which is outlined in the university's Research Policy Handbook.

During the 40-minute discussion, which included questions and answers, Peter Kao, an associate professor of medicine, suggested an amendment to the proposal.

"I would propose to the senators and to your committee a refinement – that we allow them to win one award, not just to apply for an award, but to keep applying like you do in a career until you win one award," Kao said, adding that winning a grant would make MD postdoctoral trainees more competitive in the academic job market.

"It's a great training experience," Kao said. "If you get permission just to hunt for an award and you get shot down once or twice, and then you're not permitted to hunt anymore, that really undermines your initiative to launch into an academic career."

Greenberg said the Committee on Research discussed that idea, but didn't want to create a population of postdoctoral trainees who were continually trying to get awards while others did not have an opportunity to apply. The committee decided to limit the experiment to a one-time application (and to allow resubmissions of that application) to see how the plan works, what effect it has on the faculty, on space requirements and on postdoctoral scholars.

If it is a success, it can be expanded and modified, Greenberg said.

Eric Roberts, the Charles Simonyi Professor in the School of Engineering, said the most compelling reason for supporting the plan was the fact – outlined in the proposal – that the nation desperately needs more physician-scientists.

"I couldn't agree more," Greenberg said. "Peter Kao expressed it in a heartfelt way: It is an ever increasingly tough row to hoe. The advancement of the biomedical sciences needs physician-scientists. PhDs are doing a terrific job and they're a key part of it. But you need some component of people who are actually also involved in providing care. That is a breed that is really endangered."

Philip Pizzo, dean of the School of Medicine, agreed, saying the number of physician-scientists has been declining dramatically.

"I was at a meeting with the NIH directors on Monday and it is clear that this is a continuing major source of concern," said Pizzo, a professor of pediatrics and of microbiology and immunology.

Steering committee actions

Before the regular meeting, the senate's steering committee met in administrative session and took the following actions:

  • Renewed degree-nominating authority for the PhD and MA degrees for the Interdisciplinary Program in Modern Thought and Literature for the five-year period of Sept. 1, 2011, through Aug. 31, 2016.
  • Extended and synchronized reporting and renewal periods of the joint degree programs in public policy (MPP degree and JD/MAPP degrees) by extending all current authority to Aug. 31, 2013.
  • Approved allowing a maximum of 60 crossover/double-counted units for students enrolled in the JD/MBA Joint Degree Program, as delineated by the School of Law and the Graduate School of Business, effective immediately, so that students may be granted degrees in the 2010-11 academic year.
  • Renewed degree-nominating authority for the BA degree, undergraduate minor and honors program for the Interdisciplinary Program in Feminist Studies for the three-year period of Sept. 1, 2011, through Aug. 31, 2014.
  • Renewed the degree-nominating authority for the BA degree, undergraduate minor and honors program for the Interdisciplinary Program in African and African American Studies, for a five-year period of Sept. 1, 2011, through Aug. 31, 2016.

The full minutes of the meeting, including a presentation on the 2009/10 Annual Report of the Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems, will be available on the senate's website this week.

The next Faculty Senate meeting is scheduled for Jan. 20.