In an ever-changing research environment, research offices of all sizes are continually being forced to evolve. With mounting pressures on campuses to increase their funding when there is less funding overall to be won, large and small research organizations alike are challenged in new ways.
To better understand how a high-volume research office is handling these increased pressures, the Cayuse team recently had the opportunity to speak with Melinda Cotton, Assistant Vice President of Sponsored Programs at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB). UAB handles over $480 million in awards each year and houses a staff of 46; it was an excellent opportunity for us to get an inside look at how an office of this size works.
Strengths of High-Volume
- High volume means a variety of sponsors. At UAB, researchers receive funding from a wide range of sponsors. Because of the diversity of funding sources, if one stream of money dries up, there are others to help fill in the gaps. This gives organizations a little bit more breathing room when creating budgets from year to year.
- A large staff. With more than 40 employees, UAB can be flexible with both workload and schedule. The pressure of a bustling office takes its toll on her employees, so Melinda allows her staff to create flexible plans so that they are more productive and collaborative, which has positively impacted the office culture and has formed healthy relationships with co-workers.
- Reputation. Receiving large amounts of funding also means consistently improving the university’s research infrastructure, giving a high-volume research organization an advantage in the eyes of funding agencies because they can point to prior success and availability of equipment and lab spaces.
Challenges to Overcome
- High volume means a variety of sponsors (sound familiar?). It is both a strength and a problem. With each new sponsor comes a new set of guidelines and submission requirements. Research administrators are continually learning different systems and sponsor requirements, which impacts a research administrator’s workload and frustration level.
- Less of an opportunity to connect with principal investigators. In a high-volume office, almost all of a staff member’s time is spent preparing, submitting, and awarding research dollars–ensuring all regulatory compliance requirements are satisfied. This leaves less of an opportunity for research administrators to build and foster healthy working relationships with their PIs. It also doesn’t permit much time to get excited about the science itself!
- Compliance/regulatory concerns. In an office that monitors and manages an extensive research portfolio, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay on top of compliance and regulatory issues. When I asked Melinda what keeps her up at night, she said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” Being audited is always a concern, and managing and keeping up to date with closeouts, training, export controls and financials proves to be extremely difficult.
I think most of us can identify with at least one of the above concerns, so it helps to know that as a community, we are all facing the same stressors. But as Melinda pointed out to me, “The work our principal investigators are doing is impacting the lives of so many people out there, and it’s important we always remember that, no matter what challenges may come our way.”
At Rice University (Rice) routing research proposals among department administrators and principal investigators (PIs) was time consuming and inefficient. For years, everything was done on paper and organized through cover sheets. To get the required signatures for approval and submission, proposals had to be walked around campus and returned to the Office of Sponsored Research (OSR), where they were logged in at the front desk and reviewed.