Principal investigators (PIs), the people at your institution ultimately responsible for generating and carrying out sponsored projects, will benefit greatly from electronic research administration (eRA). In our blog posts and public presentations, we offer compelling arguments why institutional administrative offices (e.g., Grants & Contracts, Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP)) will improve their business processes by moving to eRA solutions. However, these administrative offices can be quite concerned that their PIs will see such a positive change as detrimental to their own workflow. PIs may also wonder what, if anything, is in a new eRA system for them?
How do we begin to address such fears and misconceptions? Let’s start by taking a look at the top five reasons PIs will benefit from eRA, as I see them.
1. Make Better Use of PI Time
Many institutions still rely on paper and ink signatures to process sponsored project grant proposals. Principal investigators have limited time, especially if they’re teaching faculty and/or see patients in clinics, to physically run paperwork around campus, tracking down various departmental Chairs, Directors, and/or Deans for their written approval. Even if an institution allows for certain documents to be scanned in, signed, and emailed, these individual steps can take up valuable time. An eRA software system can speed up the overall process by reducing or eliminating the need for forms to be physically signed and/or scanned in. Instead of printing a form, answering questions, scanning and uploading, a PI can enter his or her details directly into an online eRA record, and electronically route it to the proper officials at the institution. Approvals are made via a mouse click, rather than by ink or scanned signature.
2. Bring Transparency to the PI’s Business Process
After initiating the electronic routing and approval process, the PI can easily track the progress of his/her grant proposal in an eRA system. Rather than wondering and worrying about the status of a proposal as the sponsor deadline looms near, the PI can receive status updates in real time. In the Cayuse Sponsored Projects (SP) eRA system, for example, the PI can receive automatic emails when his/her proposal has been successfully approved by institutional departments, and when the OSP has approved and submitted the proposal to the sponsor. Such status changes are also clearly marked in Cayuse SP on an easy-to-reach page called “My Proposals”. Should the PI have any questions along the way, the assigned OSP analyst’s contact information would be in the eRA system record.
3. Organize PI’s Documents and Improve Compliance
I know from experience that sponsored projects produce numerous draft and final documents, from the proposal stage through to award and closeout. Unfortunately, it is far too easy for a PI to misplace a final budget, or to get confused about which budget version was a draft or awarded. Some of the most brilliant researchers and scientists may simply not be the most organized. No worries! An eRA system’s built-in organizational structure can help the OSP to keep a PI’s sponsored project-related documents in order, securely accessible online from the “cloud” from anywhere, when needed, as the official institutional record. Federally-sponsored projects, especially those with subcontracts, often involve an extra level of scrutiny (e.g., required forms, surveys). Storing these documents in an eRA system record will better prepare the PI, OSP, and Accounting office for any potentially time-consuming internal/external audits which may arise, and will lessen the chances that a future award will be delayed due to noncompliance.
4. Give PIs Access to Their Own Sponsored Project Portfolios
Principal investigators simply want to see their proposal and award information in an easy-to-access software application. Institutions often have other enterprise-level management systems, but those can be complex, difficult to navigate environments, not designed for casual end users such as PIs. (In fact, PIs often don’t have access to such systems.) A thoughtful eRA system should welcome an institutional audience beyond just the administrative offices. For instance, Cayuse SP organizes the PI’s sponsored projects into two simple sections known as “My Proposals” and “My Awards”, available right on their SP homepage; basic information such as start/end dates, total award amount, etc., are visible. Further, deeper detail is a just click away.
5. Allow PIs to Generate Data Reports
Some of the key items needed to maintain a PI’s biosketch and/or other support are easy to retrieve from an eRA system. Having such data handy further benefits principal investigators by enabling them to run Excel reports on their own proposals and/or awards, by specific time periods and/or sponsor types. This can be very helpful during both ad hoc departmental report requests (such as “How many Federal proposals did Dr. Smith submit so far this year?”) and/or annual performance reviews, where a higher salary increase may result if the PI can show the added value of his or her sponsored project portfolio.
Ideally, eRA systems are not meant to be used solely by the administrative offices. Hopefully the five reasons above will help principal investigators at your institution realize that an electronic research administration system has the potential to transform and improve their sponsored projects environment.