Research Administrators: Walking the Tightrope Every Day

By March 2, 2022 March 30th, 2022 No Comments
research administrator tightrope walker

Research administrators juggle investigator needs, institutional and sponsor deadlines, and constantly changing regulations. At times, they may feel like they are walking a tightrope when it comes to meeting investigator needs in a timely, compliant manner. Even though it may not seem possible, balance within the workday is achievable for research administrators. This is true even if you are in a high-performance environment where time is of the essence.

Below are a couple of examples of how administrators often struggle to maintain balance, and how such balance can be reached.

1) Research administrators walk the tightrope between providing a thorough proposal review and submitting on time

Here is an example of a change in detail that may seem minor but may have major repercussions:

From: Principal Investigator
Sent: Deadline Date, 3:55 PM
To: Research Administrator
Subject: Final narrative – an hour early!

Attached is my final narrative, an hour early! By the way,  I made one minor change. I changed the number of research participants in Years 2-5 from 20 to 25. Can you edit the budget to reflect the five additional participants per year and change the inclusion enrollment data? Thanks!

An investigator’s day is very different from that of a research administrator. Investigators work until the last-minute revising and perfecting, trying to situate their proposals for success. They may not understand that minor changes in a project narrative often result in a cascade of changes for the research administrator. For instance, a minor variance in the budget requires changing the budget, the budget justification, the sponsor’s cover page, and the pending award amount listed in key personnel current and pending support forms. All of this creates a lot of extra work for the research administrator.

How to resolve this challenge

It is good practice to set clear expectations on when draft and final proposal elements need to be completed. Having a shared understanding of timely review and submission requirement can help to alleviate anxiety and frustration. Also, it is helpful to communicate openly about deadlines. This ensures there is adequate time to review for compliance prior to submission. Communication may include pointing investigators to institutional guidance or policy documents. Or, it may simply consist of letting the investigator know what is needed, and when, in order to meet a sponsor’s deadline.

Why established systems are so important

The use of a system for proposal routing can aid in prioritizing work and meeting deadlines. For example, proposal routing systems show users which proposals are in progress and their status toward completion. Also, system-to-system submissions may result in having to make fewer changes. For example, changes made to information in the routing module, such as a budget change, would map to different areas of the proposal such as the sponsor budget and cover page. Having a time-tested system helps to strengthen collaboration and to catch mistakes as early as possible.

Did you know? Streamlyne’s Proposal Development module provides for collaborative development of the proposal between investigators and administrators. While one user edits the budget, another user can edit the narrative, and a third user can edit the attachments. This is all integrated within the Streamlyne Research eRA software.

In addition to communicating deadlines, it is a good practice to let the investigator know which review and services your office provides. Clearly communicating PI and administrator roles and responsibilities helps guide and coordinate work toward the ultimate goal of producing a compliant proposal that gets submitted on time.

2) Research administrators walk the tightrope between meeting project objectives and maintaining compliance

Here is an example of an investigator request that, while simple on the surface, leads to a series of questions:

From: Principal Investigator
To: Research Administrator
Subject: SUV purchase

My brother-in-law has a used SUV that he is willing to sell to me for $2,000.  We budgeted $4,000 for an SUV rental this summer. Can I buy my brother-in-law’s SUV and use the remaining grant funds for gas and maintenance?

Before a research administrator can give an informed answer to a question like “Can I purchase X,” they must have a baseline of information. The facts that are important to establish here may include:

  • What do the sponsor program terms and conditions say about allowability of costs associated with items and activities?
  • How will the expenditure benefit the award?
  • Does the expenditure require prior approval from the sponsor?
  • Is the expenditure in line with institutional practices?
  • What is the availability of unencumbered funds on the project?

Research administration is about getting to ‘Yes’ in a way that advances the science while remaining compliant with myriad rules and regulations.

Further considerations

Investigators may or may not be up to date on the latest guidance. As such, it is important to supply context as well as guidance. While an SUV may be purchased instead of rented,  the investigator should also consider:

  • Who owns the SUV?
  • What will happen to the SUV after the project ends?
  • Where will the SUV be stored?
  • Who will cover storage and maintenance costs during the project and after the sponsored project ends?
  • Is the purchase of an SUV from a relative compliant with institutional purchasing rules?

Did you know? Detailed sponsor information needed to ensure compliance with sponsor and institutional requirements is readily available in Streamlyne Award, which is part of the Streamlyne Research eRA software. The reporting tool provides real-time access to available funds while the COI module provides a place for researchers to report and maintain significant relationships and interests that could pose a conflict.

Final thoughts

The purview of the research administrator includes providing context, working within guiding regulations, and supporting the management of sponsored projects. This is no easy feat, and research administrators consistently walk a tightrope throughout the day. With the objective of helping investigators get to “yes,” while keeping projects from running afoul, a research administrator is constantly in motion.

However, with the right internal support and software tools, such as the Streamlyne Research eRA software, research administrators are far better equipped to handle the rigors and challenges of the job. It is software such as Streamlyne Research that enables research administrators to get a handle on their team, set proper expectations, and manage the entire process. Because of this, research administrators can establish the much-coveted balance that all of us seek in our workday and our profession.

If you or someone within your research institution would like to learn more about Streamlyne Research, please contact us.