Senate to discuss proposal allowing physician-scientists-in-training to serve as principal investigators on research grants during four-year trial

Proponents say the change would enhance and advance the training and competitiveness of Stanford's clinical fellows and MD postdoctoral trainees as they seek their first faculty posts.

The Faculty Senate will convene Thursday for the fourth – and last – meeting of autumn quarter.

The agenda for the Dec. 2 meeting is posted online and includes links to documents that will be discussed at the meeting.

The senate will hear a report from Professor Stephen Monismith, chair of the Committee on Research, and Professor Ann Arvin, dean of research, on a proposal to allow clinical fellows and postdoctoral scholars holding MD or MD/PhD degrees in the School of Medicine to serve as principal investigators on externally funded grants, such as Research Project (RO1) Grants from the National Institutes of Health.

(RO1 grants support projects performed by the named investigator in an area representing the investigator's specific interest and competencies, based on the mission of the federal agency.)

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.

Current policy on principal investigators

Under current Stanford policy, acting as a principal investigator on an externally funded research project is a privilege limited to members of the Academic Council and to the Medical Center Line faculty.

"This policy limitation is in place because principal investigators are responsible for determining the intellectual direction of the research and scholarship, and for the training of graduate students," the university's Research Policy Handbook says.

However, exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis, with the approval of the department chair and the dean of the school, the handbook says.

Currently, there are four categories of exceptions: career development awards; specific projects that are part of large interdisciplinary programs; conferences, exhibits, workshops or public events; and other, rare, non-recurring situations subject to the approval of the dean of research.

According to Stanford's Research Policy Handbook, researchers who are not members of the Academic Council or the Medical Center Line faculty may be approved to serve as principal investigators on a class of projects generically referred to as Career Development Awards, whose stated purpose is to advance the individual's scientific career. Such petitions may be approved if the project is to be carried out under the mentorship of an established faculty investigator who is named in the proposal, and if the project can be conducted within the overall intellectual scope and laboratory space of the faculty mentor. Typically, the award covers the researcher's incidental expenses, but not incremental staff or students.

Proposal for a trial period exception to existing policy

Under the proposal, Stanford would extend the definition of "career development awards" on a four-year trial basis to include an initial RO1-like grant "in order to enhance and advance the training and competitiveness of our clinical fellows and MD postdoctoral trainees as they seek their initial academic positions."

The draft proposal says:

  • Clinical fellows and MD postdoctoral trainees with two or more years of research training may serve, with the written agreement of their faculty mentor and relevant department chair, as a principal investigator for an extramural independent RO1-type grant on a one-time basis, without the possibility of renewal (unless the trainee is appointed to the Stanford faculty).
  • This one-time opportunity is restricted to only one grant application and its allowable resubmission, with no possibility of additional applications or resubmissions beyond those allowable for the specific grant application.
  • The waiver requires the written approval of the faculty supervisor, the relevant department chair, center or institute director (if no departmental resources are to be used) and the School of Medicine's Dean's Office.
  • If the grant is not successfully obtained during the initial application and resubmission process, no further applications are permitted.
  • If the grant is awarded during this process, the postdoc principal investigator will be appointed as an "instructor" in the School of Medicine.
  • Written approval with signatures of the faculty adviser and department chair/institute or center director are required to document that the individual will be assigned the appropriate space and other resources necessary to support the work described in the grant application for the duration of the grant period, should it be awarded.
  • This proposal consists of a 4-year evaluation process that will be monitored by the Committee on Research and the dean of research, with the possibility of extension (with senate approval), termination or permanent incorporation (with senate approval) into Stanford policy.

In a two-page memo that accompanies the proposal, Monismith said the proposal would limit the number of postdoctoral trainees who can request the exception each year to 10 individuals.

"In light of the low success rate for RO1-type applications, we do not expect more than one to two awards per year," Monismith, the Obayashi Professor in the School of Engineering and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, wrote in the memo.

"In fact, we would wish for more than that low number. However, for those who succeed in obtaining an award, the benefits to their career development could be substantial. And it is our view that the experience of development and preparing the submission is in and of itself a valuable training opportunity."

Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems

Serge Plotkin, chair of the Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems and an associate professor of computer science, will present the committee's 2009-10 Annual Report.

The senate will meet at 3:15 p.m. in Room 180 of the Law School. Discussion is limited to members of the senate, but members of the Stanford community may request to attend the meeting by contacting Assistant Academic Secretary Trish DelPozzo at 723-4992 or at

Prior to the meeting, the senate will meet in administrative session from 2-3 p.m. to hear reports from the Committee on Graduate Studies and the Committee for the Review of Undergraduate Majors.