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Faculty liberalizes principal investigator policy

A policy change adopted by the Faculty Senate will make it easier for academic research staff to be named principal investigators for components of large interdisciplinary research projects.

The change in the principal investigator eligibility and exceptions policy, approved on a divided voice vote Nov. 21, had been recommended by the Academic Council's Committee on Research after it was requested in a petition from 138 faculty members and 80 members of the academic research staff.

Committee chairman Arthur Bienenstock told the senate that when he served as vice provost for faculty affairs in the 1970s, he helped draft the policy stating that only faculty could become principal investigators. In the last year, he had changed his mind, he said, because problems created by the policy "keep coming back."

In the '70s, many research associates and senior research associates were, in essence, functioning as faculty, he said. In the process of "cleaning up the system," two women were promoted from research associate to full professor overnight, he said.

Now, some academic research staff function as principal investigator in practice but not name, a divergence of practice and policy that "I think is dangerous," _Bienenstock said.

The broader exceptions policy will allow staff to apply to funding agencies as principal investigators for components of interdisciplinary projects when no Stanford faculty member is qualified, subject to approval by the cognizant dean.

This will reduce the practice of "ghosting" - a faculty member signing on as principal investigator without much direct involvement in the sponsored project - which "subverts the goals of funding agencies," Bienenstock said.

Members of the academic staff often have very specialized knowledge and fill in gaps in the university faculty, he said. In some cases, academic research staff members are so highly regarded in their fields that they serve on funding agency peer review committees. They and their work are known to the agencies, which are increasingly impatient with ghosting, Bienenstock said.

English Profs. Nancy Packer and Ron Rebholz challenged the proposed change during the senate discussion.

Packer said that increasing the number of independent principal investigators would shift the university "more and more toward a research institution. I think that's a very dangerous move for Stanford to be making."

Rebholz agreed, saying there is "something deeply, philosophically wrong" about the policy. Increasing the number of people who can be principal investigators would dramatically tilt the balance that exists among the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, he said.

Noting that she rarely disagreed with Packer, law Prof. Deborah Rhode supported the change, saying, "I really see this as enhancing research and teaching."

The pressure to ghost for other researchers has put her and other faculty "in awkward situations," she said, citing personal experience as former director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

Allowing non-faculty scholars to serve as principal investigators "legitimates and gives recognition to people who have been marginalized for too long," she said.

Biological sciences Prof. Craig Heller defended the proposal, saying it would help new scholars get training they need to move ahead in their careers.

"I regret that it doesn't go farther," he said.

Dr. David Korn, vice president and dean of medicine, told the senate that review teams visiting his school had explicitly criticized the practice of concentrating funding for large projects in the hands of a small number of faculty.

Senate members approved amendments to the proposal calling for periodic review of the policy, specifying that approval by deans for staff to be principal investigators "shall not be pro forma," and clarifying that interdisciplinary programs are those that require expertise in more than "one discipline or technical area."

The policy will apply to about 50 research staff members who work in large interdisciplinary programs, such as the Center for Research in Disease Prevention and the Center for Integrated Systems.

It will apply only to programs defined as having an expected duration beyond the involvement of any one faculty member. The project must be "demonstrably important" and its graduate students must be supervised by Academic Council members.

A control mechanism imposed by the policy specifies that projects led by academic research staff will not qualify for incremental space.

For years, the Committee on Research resisted suggested policy changes on the grounds that only faculty should determine Stanford's research agenda and that graduate students deserve a guarantee of supervision by full-fledged faculty members.



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