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Investments help researchers tackle complex problems by making research more affordable and accessible

The 2023-24 budget presented at the Faculty Senate meeting expands funding for shared research facilities, staff, and support.

As the problems facing humanity grow more complex, so does the research it takes to address them.

Community vision drives funding for shared facilities, staff, and research support systems. (Image credit: Tim Griffith)

Even in the midst of the pandemic, Stanford’s research expenditures grew nearly 8%, surpassing $1.25 billion (excluding SLAC’s Department Of Energy contract) in 2021-22. Provost Persis Drell recently presented the 2023-24 budget at the Faculty Senate, which builds upon this momentum and expands the university’s ability to address global challenges in three strategic areas: improving research accessibility, increasing affordability, and strengthening support systems.

The investments are based on a collective community vision, said Kathryn Ann “Kam” Moler, vice provost and dean of research.

“U.S. research universities have been a fantastic engine for economic growth, social mobility, and contributing to the solutions of the world’s most pressing problems,” Moler said. “Keeping the research capabilities of the university strong is an important part of our mission for that reason.”

Expanding capacity with shared platforms

Since the Community of Shared Advanced Research Platforms – known as c-SHARP – launched in 2019, there has been growing enthusiasm among the community of Stanford researchers who use sophisticated technologies in the university’s shared facilities, said Claudius Mundoma, the director of shared instrumentation facilities for vice provost and dean of research.

“There is a sense of purpose, there is a sense of urgency, and there is a sense that the shared facilities and the staff who work in them are a prioritized investment that is central and core to the groundbreaking research that the university wants to enable,” Mundoma said.

Mundoma leads implementation of instrumentation for the Shared Research Platforms initiative, introduced as part of the university’s Long-Range Vision in 2019. Stanford is committing more than $50 million toward this initiative, including $40 million dedicated to modernizing aging equipment and introducing new scientific tools.

As scientific instruments have become more powerful, they’ve also become more complicated – and more expensive. A single tool may cost millions of dollars, but hundreds of researchers could use it in a shared facility.

The same goes for computing and data management resources. Ruth Marinshaw, chief technology officer for research computing, said the need for these shared resources is growing rapidly.

In 2013, the first phase of the Stanford Research Computing Facility (SRCF) created a purpose-built shared facility designed to house and operate thousands of high-speed servers devoted to research computation. By 2018, it was at capacity.

The new wave of investments provides $38 million in capital funding for SRCF phase two, which opens this summer.

“There’s so much computing done at Stanford,” Marinshaw said. “We have researchers who are doing such novel and interesting things across all of the schools. Not everything requires computation, but a lot of research today does require access to resources to do analysis, modeling, and simulation at scale.”

The investments also include foundational funding to develop new backup capability for research data, as well as systems engineers to design, implement, and guide researchers in using this vital resource for protecting research data.

Expanding shared facilities and computing resources increases access for students as well as faculty.

“I really dream of a world where the ability of students to follow their most creative ideas is not limited by the instruments that their thesis advisor happens to have in their lab,” Moler said. “Their ability is just limited by their own creativity, and they can get access to whatever tools and resources they need to do their best scholarship.”

Making research more affordable

Graduate students are also an essential part of expanding research activities at Stanford. A recent analysis from the VPDoR uncovered that the cost of a research assistant (RA) on sponsored projects has increased by 20% in the last five years. Meanwhile, the federal research budget for higher education grew only 2.1% annually from FY10 to FY20, and funding awarded to single principal investigators has lagged behind inflation.

“We’re concerned about the rising cost of conducting research relative to our peers,” said Serena Rao, senior associate dean for finance and administration for the VPDoR. “We’re also concerned about the widening gap between that and sponsored research funding available to support a research assistant.”

A collaborative working group bringing together VPDoR and the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education identified making RAs on research grants more affordable as a critical need.

As a result, Stanford is increasing its support of the RA tuition allowance to sponsored projects that bear the full indirect cost rate from 40% to 55% in 2023-24 – the first increase since FY14. Covering a larger proportion of the costs of RAs on grants will free up limited funding for other activities, including enhancing training experiences for students.

This policy change does not affect the School of Medicine, which has a unique funding model for biosciences doctoral programs in which a majority of its graduate students are fully funded without research assistantships during their first four years.

Investing in research support

As research activities expand, Stanford is committed to ensuring projects meet the highest standards of integrity and ethics.

The VPDoR investments include new staff positions for central support and compliance offices, including Research Safety and the Institutional Review Board. Research regulations have grown more rigorous in recent years, and adding staff will help reduce administrative burdens and ensure research remains safe, secure, ethical, and in compliance with government and Stanford policies.

The investments also will provide expanded professional development and career path opportunities for the staff members whose expertise is vital to shared research platforms.

Targeted resources to help researchers engage in large-scale projects that transcend traditional academic silos are another area of investment. The Stanford Research Development Office (RDO) was founded in 2021 to help researchers develop grant proposals for collaborative projects.

“What has happened over the last decade or so, but is a continuing trend, is the shift toward larger, collaborative funding opportunities with the aim of tackling these massive problems with huge societal impact that no single research group can solve on their own,” said RDO Director Kim Baeten. “Researchers need to talk to each other, share data, make connections, and synthesize it all in a meaningful way in order to make real progress on these complex problems.”

While research development support is available in many parts of campus, RDO expands the support for large, collaborative projects in particular, including those in social sciences, arts, and humanities, across the various schools.

As the federal government and other research sponsors are directing more money toward interdisciplinary, and often multi-institutional, projects, the grant applications become increasingly more complex, Baeten said. RDO staff help bring researchers together to build a shared vision and support them as they write and develop their proposals, helping them make their applications as competitive as possible.

Accelerating toward the future

While full details of the budget will be published by the University Budget Office in June, these investments in research are already focusing on a clear path forward. The future of research is expansive and exciting, but Stanford’s investments are part of a long tradition, Moler said. Providing useful education and doing useful research have always been part of the university’s mission, she added.

“As the need accelerates and the opportunities accelerate,” Moler said, “we keep upping our game.”