The Evolution of the Research Administrator: A Journey through the Decades

By September 24, 2023 October 20th, 2023 No Comments
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Becoming a research administrator isn’t always a straight path. For example, who among us dreamed of being a research admin as a middle schooler? But for those who devote their career to this field, it can be very rewarding, challenging, and fulfilling. Research administrators have always played a pivotal role in facilitating, organizing, and managing research projects.

Although the job titles and specifics may vary across institutions, there are universal practices that hold true. But this field has undergone significant evolution throughout the decades. Over time, the roles have adapted and transformed in response to scientific, technological, and societal changes. So how did we get to where we are today? Let’s rewind:

1950s 1960s

1950s and 1960s: The early years

During the 1950s and 1960s, the world saw a post-war resurgence in scientific research. The Cold War propelled significant investments in defense and aerospace research, including the landmark space race. Research administrators in this era primarily focused on procurement, basic budgeting, and coordination. The role was largely clerical, with administrators often sifting through mountains of paperwork to ensure that funds were appropriately allocated and projects stayed on track.

Fun fact: In 1959, NCURA was founded as a non-profit professional society, with the mission of advancing the profession of research administration!


1970s: Adaptation and standardization

The 1970s ushered in a new level of complexity. With increased public funding came more regulations and requirements. As federal agencies introduced stricter rules on grants and research ethics, particularly around human and animal subjects, the role of the research administrator expanded. Admins suddenly became gatekeepers, ensuring compliance with evolving regulations. The decade also saw the first steps towards turning research administration into a formal profession, which lead to dedicated training programs and the rise of other professional associations.


1980s: Hello technology

The 1980s were a turning point, marked by the growing influence of computers in workplaces. Research administrators began to utilize basic software tools to manage budgets, track projects, and report findings. As research became more interdisciplinary, administrators were required to juggle increasingly complex projects, often coordinating between departments and even institutions. Early computerized tools and applications helped to make these added responsibilities possible to carry out.


1990s: Globalization and collaboration

The 1990s were characterized by a trend towards globalization. Research collaborations started spanning continents, and research administrators had to adapt to international standards, protocols, and regulations. They started playing an increasingly strategic role, facilitating global partnerships, navigating international funding sources, and ensuring global compliance. With the advent of the internet, online databases and communication tools became vital, further integrating technology into their daily operations.


2000s: The digital boom

The 2000s were the decade of digital transformation. With advanced software, cloud computing, and data analytics at their disposal, research administrators were able to handle larger volumes of data, making their processes more efficient and accurate. The era also saw a shift towards open science and public access, which meant administrators had to familiarize themselves with new policies related to data sharing and publication.

Fun fact: In 2003, Streamlyne emerged as research administration software specialists, which lead to the creation of the Streamlyne Research eRA system and its entire software suite.


2010s: Growth and specialization

During the 2010s, research administration started to mature as a field. As research projects became more complex, specialized, and diversified, so too did the role of the research administrator. They now had to specialize in areas like intellectual property rights, technology transfer, and commercialization. Ethics took center stage, particularly in sectors like biotechnology and data science. With the proliferation of big data, administrators had to ensure the ethical collection, storage, and analysis of vast amounts of information.


2020s and Beyond: Facing modern challenges

Entering the 2020s, research administration confronts new challenges, from managing remote teams in a post-pandemic world to grappling with the intricacies of AI research. Sustainability, inclusivity, and social impact have also become central themes, making the role of the administrator even more multidimensional. Additionally, with the rise of private funding, administrators must continually bridge the gap between academic and corporate interests, ensuring productive collaborations.


Without a doubt, research administration has undergone many changes over the years. From humble clerical beginnings to the current status as central pillars of the research ecosystem, this field has been constantly reshaped by societal needs, technological advancements, and scientific trends. As the backbone of busy research programs, it is no wonder that so many research administrators are resilient, capable, and highly skilled individuals.

As we envision the future, research administration will undoubtedly continue to progress. Each decade will have its own new challenges, along with strides made towards success, efficiency, and societal benefit. Considering how the field has evolved until now, we have a deeper appreciation for those who paved the way for today’s research administrators.