Faculty Senate expands PI eligibility for staff at SLAC and medical school, in trial

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The Faculty Senate approved a trial policy that would grant principal investigator (PI) eligibility to additional staff of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and clinical educators (CE) in the School of Medicine. Currently only members of the Academic Council, which includes all tenure-line faculty, are eligible to be PIs with some rare exceptions outlined in Stanford’s Research Policy Handbook.

Jennifer Dionne, materials science and engineering professor and chair of the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Research, argued that the trial, which is expected to last for five years, is closer to a more broad definition of PI-ship that other federal agencies follow.

“If you look to several agencies’ definitions of PI-ship, you’ll find that they are relatively broad compared to Stanford’s PI definition,” Dionne said. “In particular we limit PI eligibility because we want PIs to train graduate students, and I think that is a critical part of Stanford’s mission. But if we look to what an agency defines as a PI, it is usually limited to a PI just directing the research and the scholarship of a particular project.”

Continuing staff scientists and engineers at SLAC are already allowed to be the PI for grants from the Department of Energy, according to Dionne. This trial would allow them, after a vetting process, to apply for funding from other sources including the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and private sources. Similarly, Dionne mentioned that while School of Medicine’s CEs generally do not have PI privilege, they already conduct clinical research, “critical to renewal of many of our core [School of Medicine] centers, such as our NCI-supported [National Cancer Institute] cancer institute.”

Ruth O’Hara, behavioral sciences professor and senior associate dean of research and psychiatry, argued in favor of the motion, saying that current PI eligibility rules at Stanford restrict CEs’ ability to treat patients and treat patients and conduct research similar to other institutions

“We would also be significantly limited in our ability to offer our patients to be part of such critical trials and state-of-the-field interventions,” O’Hara said. “We also note that physicians in similar CE tracks as our academic peers, can lead these clinical trials and research, including Harvard and Columbia, MD Anderson and Northwestern just to name a few.”

Mike Dunne, professor of photon science, agreed the measure would help Stanford compete with other research institutions.

“The inability of the majority of our SLAC researchers to be PIs beyond the [Department of Energy] is increasingly constraining, in both the quality of a scientific impact and also our competitiveness as a research community,” he said. 

Mechanical engineering professor Parviz Moin raised several concerns about the motion, including competition between SLAC and other researchers on campus.

“When there is a call [for research proposals] from NSF and other areas, PI eligibility by Stanford colleagues, especially having access to the wonderful facilities at SLAC, would also provide a bit of competition on starting assistant professors on the main campus,” Moin said. “They would have to compete with these SLAC employees and research associates in getting the federal funding and that is a potential concern.”

The measures were passed with all senators voting in favor, with the exception of Moin, who abstained. 

This article has been corrected to reflect that PI stands for principal investigator, not principal instructor.

Contact Michael Espinosa at mesp2021 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Michael Espinosa '21 is majoring in international relations. He's the head of The Daily's social media team, and editor for the University beat and also occasionally writes about other topics for sports, arts, and The Grind. He's the biggest Taylor Swift fan at Stanford and the proudest New Yorker you will ever meet. Contact him at mesp2021 'at' stanford.edu.