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Challenges for Research Administrators in the Research Enterprise

Prepared in 2015. This article was prepared as part of my graduate studies in Research Administration at Johns Hopkins University.

The research enterprise in the United States faces several challenges that have resulted in a loss of global competitiveness. According to the Report to President Obama, Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise; it is imperative to increase the productivity of investigators and to position the "research universities and the National Laboratories as central engines of innovation and geographical anchor’s of the Nation’s science and technology enterprise,”[i] bringing back the top position as the top Research and Development investors in the world.

As a research administrator, I will focus on four issues facing each university I assist, Day-in and day-out, to develop their research base and research administration infrastructure. In our role we should not be regarded as mere technicians performing simple tasks as applying, obtaining and managing a grant, but instead, we are essential players in the research enterprise as a whole. To claim our rightful place in the enterprise, research administrators must polish our “government relations” skills, knowledgeable regarding who are the funders of basic and early-applied research, what they are looking for regarding public investment, and what are the current funding trends and projections.

Although the realm of policies and procedures is the day-to-day of a research administrator, it is important to become engaged in making them more flexible to adapt the creative and innovation aspects of research, and less on the administrative burdens imposed on a researcher. Identifying and promoting funding opportunities that improve the Nation’s STEM higher education is crucial for producing high-quality level researchers who can manage all aspects of the research spectrum. Furthermore, it important being able to know and identify the university’s faculty that is capable and available to perform meaningful top-level research, as well as which external entities could be feasible cohorts on public-private partnerships.

There are four issues from the report, which I believe are a priority and are clearly related to today’s research administration in the United States. I focus particularly in; 1) the underinvestment in basic and applied research by the industrial sector; 2) adoption of policies that allow researchers to be productive; 3) the improvement of education at U.S. universities, and 4) leadership in establishing new public-private partnerships.

Issue number 1 – Underinvestment in basic and applied research by the industrial sector. Basic research is needed for industrial innovation. With the decline of basic research from industry and focusing on the development of smaller technologies, for the sole purpose of commercialization, universities have to become the centers of innovations, generating basic and applied research that leads to inventions[ii]. As stated in the report “the United States needs to protect its ability to generate foundation basic research while also doing more to enable the fruits of that research to become platforms for products, jobs, and new industries”[iii]. To step up to that challenge within the enterprise, research administrators have to become more engaged in analyzing and reading research trends, or the type of programs that the Federal government is willing to support or not in the near future. It becomes critical to keep up to date with Federal programs available for universities, as well as on the “research trends” discussion within the executive branch and Congress. For these purposes, capable research administrators must actively participate in the shaping of science and research, through such programs like that of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s U.S. Government Relations, conveying future trends to university researchers and Vice Provost for Research.[iv]

Issue number 2 – Adopt policies that allow researchers to be productive. According to the 2012 Faculty Workload Survey Research Report, 42% of time spent on federally funded projects goes to attending federal requirements.[v] A solution vector is for research administrators to become facilitators, streamlining policies by recommending best practices and solutions; as the day-to-day administrative support that researchers need for properly carrying out their projects. Not only can research administrators participate in providing comments for the revision of OMB circulars but also they can positively affect the organizational structure by recommending best practices and administrative structures. The National Science Foundation Report on Reducing Investigators’ Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research asserts that “dissemination of effective practices and models can create efficiencies that reduce PIs’ administrative workload”[vi]. A more proactive role in grants administration by research administrator leads to efficiency and effectiveness in the administrative tasks, and a win-win situation for all stakeholders in the research enterprise.

Issue number 3 – Improving education at U.S. universities. The report stresses that an essential element for the success of the STEM disciplines, is the instruction of non- research related skills among future researchers, such as project management, effective communication skills, leadership, and teamwork, among many others.[vii] It is in the best interest of research administrators to actively promote projects for undergraduate and graduate level students that can foster researchers with skills set that greatly enhances the process of administering a grant.

With better communication and project management skills, the researcher is afforded more time to perform research specific tasks and less time on the administrative burden that goes along with external funding. According to the Seattle 2005 conference on the Force of Change in Doctoral Education Worldwide, one of the 18 common characteristics of doctoral education worldwide is providing training and experience in project management, teamwork, and cultural expertise, among many others.[viii]

Issue number 4 – Leadership in establishing new public-private partnerships. – A relevant and appropriate mechanism to foster public-private partnerships is the creation of Cooperative Research and Development Agreements or CRADAs. In essence, a CRADA’s purpose is to “make Government facilities, intellectual property, and expertise available for collaborative interactions to further the development of scientific and technological knowledge into useful, marketable products”[ix].

Research administrators who are well versed in this field are an excellent resource for providing the necessary administrative support for the partnerships to become successful, specifically in areas such as technology transfer and intellectual property. Public and private funding have different ways of how business is performed, and research administrators working in cutting edge research need to know private funders as well and their working environment.

[i] President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2012) Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise (page 1) < >

[ii] Idem page 35

[iii] idem page 40

[iv] American Association for the Advancement of Science.

[v] National Science Foundation. 2012 Faculty Workload Survey Research Repot < >

[vi] National Science Foundation (2014) : <>.

[vii] STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

[viii] Maresi Nerad. Globalization and its Impact on Research Education: Trends and Emerging Best Practices for the Doctorate of the Future. 2006.

[ix] National Institutes of Health. Purpose of NIH CRADA. <>.

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