In recent years, there’s been a sense of heightened awareness of foreign influence in academia, with financial conflicts and outside commitments being scrutinized like never before. This, of course, has an impact on proposal, award, and export control management, bringing new complexities to an already intricate process.
A paradigm shift toward complete transparency
“When I first read the NSPM-33 and its recommendations, what really stood out to me was this foundational shift—a paradigm shift in moving towards complete transparency,” shared Kimberly Eck, Associate Vice President for Research at Emory University. “And for us that really is a big shift: the requirement that everything gets written down and everything be presented, so that we can really see that holistic view.”
Erik Schneebeck, Director of the Office of Conflicts of Interest at New York University, agrees wholeheartedly. “The scope of NSPM-33 is very drastically expanded from what we’re used to,” he says. “It’s one of the first real acknowledgements at the federal level of conflicts of commitment, which we’ve been dealing with institutionally for a number of years, [without] any indication from the federal government that this is an area of interest. They’re looking beyond the typical financial conflicts of interest to the need for disclosure and a level of review around commitment conflicts.“
A challenge of communication and engagement
Of course, this major shift comes with its own challenges. Our customers have told us how sensitive this issue can be, with concerns around racial profiling, government interference, and an increased administrative workload expressed in institutions across the country.
Lisa Goble, Director of the Office of Research Integrity at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, told us that a primary concern appears to be relationships that may be unpaid, but still overlap with federally funded research. “It’s painfully obvious that the federal government is very concerned about the taxpayer, intellectual property, and data being shared when it shouldn’t. But, at the same time, we don’t want to discourage the open nature of academic research.”
“It’s been such a challenge to communicate to faculty members and researchers there’s been a historical approach of compartmentalization, especially for those getting multiple sources of funding,” Kimberly added. “And so, to say that you have to break down that compartmentalization and describe the totality of your support, portfolio, and affiliations the reaction I get is, ‘you don’t really mean that.’”
So, how do you find a balance between compliance and valuing the diversity of partnerships, often international, that allow research to thrive? How do you engage with faculty to both reassure them and ensure compliance?
Concerted steps toward mindfulness in nomenclature and collaboration
It seems that open discussion and a rethinking of the language used during the process can go a long way toward bringing faculty on board with these changes. Terms like “inappropriate influence” are experienced as accusatory and targeting a specific audience based on their country of origin or prior experience. A shift in language is essential, with the need to use terms that are inclusive and encourage openness and collaboration.
“We had a very heartfelt discussion with faculty,” Erik noted. “Faculty who were very much concerned—when the indictments from the DoJ (Department of Justice) were coming through—about profiling and wanting some level of assurance from the university that we’d handle this in a way that wouldn’t be viewed as targeted against specific groups. Our engagement has to be country-agnostic in these discussions, so we’re avoiding the term ‘influence’ in favor of ‘foreign engagements,’ which is our go-to descriptor for this.”
At Cayuse, many of the institutions we partner with are creating working groups and task forces to effectively implement best practices as encouraged by the COGR (Council on Governmental Relations).
“At Emory, we’ve formed the Research Security and International Collaboration Committee,” highlighted Kimberly. “One of the most complicated things about the security of science or research security is that so many research units need to touch these solutions, it’s not just an IT thing. Many units need to come together. All the groups are encouraged to propose changes to the committee for feedback before they roll them out.”
Call for technology to streamline processes and ensure compliance
Technology solutions, like Cayuse, have truly risen to the occasion to streamline processes and help research administrators remain compliant. This is especially true in recent years when virtually everything has been forced to go digital.
At UNCG, Lisa Goble shared that they’ve created a wide range of templated forms to cover every kind of engagement and external commitment. These are then submitted to the relevant departments via Cayuse, which saves a great deal of administrative time.
“We do have an integration of the high-level view between our COI and grant software so that more people involved in the grants lifecycle can see which members of a study team have submitted their annual research disclosure and the status of the review, reducing bottlenecking from a process perspective,” commented Erik.
However, consistency among sponsors appears to be a stumbling block at this early stage. “We also need to see how much harmonization happens at the federal level. We need our major sponsors to have some consistent requirements which will really help drive tech solutions, Erik added. “It’s challenging when you have 10 major sponsors who are asking you iterations of requirements that can vary widely.”
Here at Cayuse, we’re watching closely to see how things develop at a federal and institutional level. We continue to invest in research and development to deliver new features and integrations to ease this process for everyone involved.