Despite current controversy, former School of Medicine cardiology chief Michael Simons was a prolific recipient of research grants for the University.
Following accusations of sexual misconduct in 2013, Simons faced a reduced penalty of an 18-month suspension, compared to the initial recommendation by the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct that he be removed from his position. While the motivation behind this lesser penalty issued by the University administration has not been publicly disclosed, the millions of dollars Simons brought in annually to the medical school have generated questions of partiality. According to the National Institutes of Health — a major source of federal funding for medical research — Simons brought in nearly $5 million in research grants annually for the past three fiscal years.
“[$5 million] is a lot,” Stanford assistant professor Alexander Urban GRD ’07 said. “I would assume it is above average, but on the other hand [Simons] is a very senior person and that may have helped add funds.”
Urban, who received a $2.55 million grant in 2012 and a $293,021 grant in 2014 according to the NIH website, said NIH funding is essential to a major university. He added that there is a “chronic sense of panic” among biomedical researchers since some labs in recent years have had to slash budgets and layoff researchers.
Simons, on the other hand, could be counted on from a financial perspective. The revenue he brought to the school annually never dipped below $1.5 million over the past five years.
According to the Times, a part of the formal complaint filed against Simons questioned his actions regarding a grant that he was awarded, and whether Simons removed another faculty member from the grant in retaliation. The article further reported that several faculty members interviewed said researchers who attract grants might be given “extra latitude.”
“It is true that a faculty member that does receive a lot of grants is extremely valuable — that goes without saying,” Urban said. “But that should not go so far as to encourage inappropriate action … But will it never happen? Of course I can’t say that, there might be temptation.”
Still, Urban added that he could not cite an example in which an administration may have given preferential treatment for someone who brought in a large sum of grant money. Others interviewed said there is no way to know whether financial value gives individuals preferential treatment from administrators.
Faculty and administrators have stressed the continued importance of NIH revenue for medical research on campus, particularly in light of growing competition among laboratories and diminishing federal support for funding.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about research funding from federal budget,” Provost Benjamin Polak told the News in October, prior to the allegations of Simons’ misconduct came to light. “Although the sequester ended, the NIH peaked in real terms around 2003 and has been gradually falling in real terms.”
The medical school relies heavily upon the NIH grants. According to Yale’s 2013–14 Financial Report, which includes the University’s audited financial statements, in 2014 and 2013, grant and contract income received from the Federal government totaled $512.6 million and $535.8 million.
Still, according to the report, it has become increasingly more difficult for the medical school to garner this support for research. In fiscal year 2014, the medical school reported a decrease of 2 percent in grant and contract income — making individuals like Simons, who consistently raked in millions, all the more valuable.
In the figures listed on the NIH website, Simons was awarded roughly $5 million in 11 NIH grants in 2014, which spanned from a $540,016 award to study “Angiogensis and Ischemia” to a $378,748 check to research “Shear Stress Activation of Arteriogenic Signaling.” In addition, Simons’s lab at the medical school lists five studies on its website that are currently receiving funding, and Simons’s biography on the medical school’s web page cites his “extensive track record of NIH funding” as an accomplishment.
Revenue flow also affects the reputation of the medical school’s among its peers. The school ranks fifth among medical schools receiving funds from the NIH and second in NIH dollars per faculty member, according to its website.
“We are continuously strategizing to increase our revenue,” Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Alpern said in October. “We’re always trying to get more grants, and make the clinical practice more efficient and better.”
He added that research revenue depends heavily on the NIH and that it is often hard to predict whether the School of Medicine will operate at a surplus or a deficit because of the conditions in Washington.
Stanford postdoctoral student Ganesh Pusapati said NIH grants often form the core of the funding for laboratory research. He said $5 million would allow researchers in a lab to do much more work and explore issues that would otherwise too expensive.
Stanford Funding Opportunity Administrator Jeanne Heschele said she sends out NIH-related information to staff on a weekly basis. She added that what distinguishes this federal support for other sources of revenue is that it does not have a profit motive, but supports research on the basis of merit.
Over 80 percent of the NIH’s budget goes to more than 300,000 research personnel at more than 2,500 universities and research institutions.