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Change of Plans

New and sometimes contradictory rules force academic research divisions to juggle competing demands

By Lindsay Lewis

The world of academic research is tough.

Not only is today’s funding environment highly-competitive, but there is increasing administrative burden on university research divisions to manage applications and awards.

Most offices find themselves trying to balance the needs of their principal investigators AND the requirements set by the funding agencies – a tricky tug-of-war where, many times, nobody wins.

Let’s take a look at some of these challenges and what leaders are doing about it.

Uniform Guidance

Challenge 1: When Uniform Guidance Isn’t Uniform

When the U.S. Office of Management and Budget released Uniform Guidance a couple of years ago, the goal was to provide a more structured and standardized approach to grants management within institutional research operations. The guidelines provide research offices with rules and regulations for the process of proposing and managing research sponsored by federal funds.

As with any major change, however, there are always new problems that develop – and new loopholes. Uniform Guidance is no different. Take cost sharing.

Under the revised guidelines, voluntary cost sharing should not influence the outcome of a grant competition, essentially leveling the playing field for principal investigators whose institutions may not be able to support research programs via cost-sharing. Yet many grant programs hint that cost-sharing ability may make submissions more competitive. It’s not a requirement, per se, but certainly factors into the funding decision.

“This creates a real problem between principal investigators and their institutions,” said Beverly Rymer, executive director of the Office of Contracts and Grants at the University of Houston. “Many investigators request cost sharing for these grants because they fear they’ll not be able to compete for the funding without it.”

Sara Bible, associate vice provost for research at Stanford University, said that when funding agencies operate outside the guidelines, especially on matters such as cost sharing, it may create tension between faculty and the department, dean’s office or university officials who are asked to fund the cost sharing that was not supposed to be required.

“Any time we see agencies deviate from Uniform Guidance, we call the policy office and point out that a specific program announcement is not consistent with the guidelines. Our experience is that the policy offices appreciate that we have made them aware of the issue and they contact the specific program officer to remedy the inconsistency.”

Otherwise, says Bible, investigators get mixed messages from the agency and their research administrators. And in the heat of the moment when the deadline is approaching, this could cause unnecessary stress among research teams – and ultimately can threaten a successful submission. “Universities have to pay careful attention to the guidelines,” Bible said. “When agencies operate outside those guidelines, there are consequences for universities. We need the Uniform Guidance to be uniform.”

Challenge 2: When the Business of Research Costs Too Much

Beyond expanding research administration to keep up with the growing requirements of Uniform Guidance and the internal controls of collaborating institutions, leaders also face an uncertain funding future and diminishing cost recovery.

“Institutions invest heavily in research infrastructure,” said Susan Sedwick, a consultant at Attain. She acknowledges research offices have always dealt with the ebb and flow of budgets and indirect cost issues. “There’s great concern about our funding future – it’s not the first time, though, and it won’t be the last.”

Melinda Cotten, assistant vice president for Sponsored Programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, agrees that institutions will likely take a big hit if indirect cost rates – now widely referred to as Facilities and Administrative (F&A) costs – continue to drop. This means institutional research offices may have to pass some of the administrative buck and become more creative in their approach to supporting operations.

But that will come at a cost.

“We’re already seeing more principal investigators taking on a more active role in administering their research programs,” Cotten said. “But the more time they devote to administration, the more time is taken away from research.”

In fact, a study conducted by the Federal Demonstration Partnership found that more than 40 percent of a federally-funded principal investigator’s time is now spent doing administrative work – a number that has doubled over the past two decades and doesn’t include writing proposals.

Most of this burden comes from increased guidance for the use of federal funds and increased requirements for human and animal research. And while principal investigators are taking on more work to meet these requirements, research offices have to manage it all.

Diminishing cost recovery from federal grants is also forcing research offices to explore more non-traditional avenues of funding.

“Institutions are increasingly looking toward industry to fill the funding gap,” Sedwick said. “To do that, many are taking a more comprehensive, corporate approach.”

She said some research offices have been beefing up operations for years to better market partnership opportunities to industry. That requires far more investment in administrative resources, she said, beyond what’s needed on the grant management end.

“Many research divisions now have marketing offices – just for industry,” said Sedwick. “We’re having to invest in grant development, in industry engagement and in marketing just to remain competitive for those funds.”

change-of-plans-article-2.pngChallenge 3: When Preventing Waste Creates Waste

Uniform Guidance also upped the ante on risk assessment and sub-recipient monitoring requirements to address fraud and waste of government funding.

And while that is both important and necessary, it added another administrative burden for research offices, another point of contention among administrative teams, faculty and their partners, and in the end, more costs for already strained research operations.

“The sheer volume of what we’re being asked to do continues to grow,” said Cotten. “We’re being asked to do more with less.” Like many others, Cotten hired additional staff to handle the volume of work required for more thorough risk assessments for sub-awards. Although leaders, like Cotten, understand and support the need for greater scrutiny, there is a bottom line that is often not flexible.

Her office has hired a cadre of specialists to track ever-changing policy and technology developments. “I don’t understand how smaller research offices do it,” she said.

And that’s just the minimum federal requirements. Each individual grant management office has the ability to structure risk assessments and sub-recipient monitoring in whatever way they wish, as long as they meet the minimum requirements outlined by Uniform Guidance.

Some choose to do more.

“The 2016 National Research Council report cautioned institutions to resist the urge to exceed what is required. This is sometimes referred to as ‘compliance plus,’” said Sedwick.

“It’s where institutions create requirements that exceed the federal requirements, contributing additional administrative burden for researchers and sub-awardees.”

As grant requests call for more inter-institutional collaboration, the additional paperwork, reporting and staff required to juggle all of the demands can strain relationships.

“Without a doubt, institutions need strong internal controls,” said Sedwick. “But we need to assess risk reasonably. Institutions that routinely administer federal funding and are annually audited should not be treated the same as a new startup or foreign recipient. We can choose how we implement the requirements.”

Cotten agrees the extra burden now required – and the additional steps voluntarily taken by some grant offices – to monitor sub-awards not only causes tension between institutions but puts further strain between faculty and their administration.

“Faculty are upset,” she said. “Having to do additional assessments before sub-awards are released takes time, and it delays the start of the research project. Faculty cannot afford to waste any time.”

Challenge 4: When Effective Leadership Means Effective Service

As institutional research offices juggle regulatory and financial challenges within a continually strained system, they still have to lead their respective enterprises and serve their research communities.

“Service before leadership,” said Amr Elnashai, vice president for Research and Technology Transfer at the University of Houston. “We cannot miss this very important fact – we have to serve the needs of our research communities, first, before they will trust us to lead.”

How to do that while tackling the many challenges faced by research divisions? The best way, according to Bible, is to continually engage the university community in the business of research.

“You will have good results if you put in the time,” she said. “It’s really important to be flexible with faculty and staff on campus.”

One way Bible has successfully engaged her research community is in policy development. Her office at Stanford implemented a research policy working group that may spend months testing policy language and effectiveness with university faculty and staff before it is launched.

“We’ve had great results,” she said. “People want to engage and be part of the process, not just be expected to follow a rigid set of rules.”

Cotten has had similar success with the grant submission process. The University of Alabama at Birmingham worked with faculty, schools and departments to develop a “pre-deadline deadline” for proposals a full seven days before their due dates. This gives the office time to strengthen and fix proposals, increasing the likelihood of funding.

“Within our School of Medicine, more than 80 percent of our proposals come in by our pre-deadline,” she said. “We work hard to communicate and advocate to faculty that we can serve them better by doing it this way, and it’s working for us.”

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