Learning from others

Thanks to the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the US National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) for their fellowship, which made my trip possible. Thanks also to Kirsten Yehl for making my trip a fantastic success.


Jonathan looking nervous, as he holds a NURAP sign in front of a poster that says 'Chicago'

Jonathan at the Northwestern University Research Administration Professionals meeting

In September – October last year, I travelled from my base at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia to Northwestern University, Chicago, as an ARMS / NCURA Fellow. I spent time with the research administrators in the School of Engineering and the Institute of Public Health.

During that time, I learnt that there were a lot of similarities in working with academics in both our countries. I also learnt the value of reflecting on my own professional practice by discussing it with people who do very different things.

Here are a few of the things that contrasted with my everyday Australian experiences:

Scope: I was constantly reminded that the scope of research between our two institutions was so different. At one of my meetings, a Northwestern research administrator was thrilled that one of her researchers had just been awarded the Nobel Prize. That’s not going to happen to me anytime soon!

Northwestern attracts US$620 million (A$850 million) annually in sponsored research. That’s almost A$3 million more than the Australian Research Council. In addition, they have US$10.5 billion in endowments and other trust funds. This difference in scale leads to a difference in understanding of what research can be undertaken, a difference in how grant applications are developed, and a difference in how the resulting research funding is scrutinised.

Attitude: The Research Administrators at Northwestern are there to make it as easy as possible for their researchers to apply for funding and to do their research. That is (or should be) the same the world over. However, it is an important thing to keep in mind, especially when we are in the thick of things.

‘Research Administrator’ is a specific role at Northwestern. They work with academic staff (faculty) to prepare their applications. Their aim is to make the application process as smooth as possible, and take as much load as possible off the academics, so that they can concentrate on writing the core of the application. So, for example, Research Administrators prepare budgets for the faculty. They may also draw together parts of the documents (such as CVs) from previous applications, so that the applicant can just update them.

Required versus optional: They were very interested in the idea that my applicants were not required to work with me, and could submit directly to the central research office. Their applicants are required to go through the Research Administrators, and that changes the relationship somewhat. They are working hard to convince their faculty of the value that they provide. In part, the difference between our approaches sits around the difference in our roles – I only do pre-submission work, whereas they work on all aspects of the application.

Cradle to grave: They work with the applicant through the full life-cycle of the grant. They help with the application, submission, rejoinders, contracting the grant, post-award admin and milestones, finance, and final reporting. They have their eye on the whole life-cycle of the project, even when they are coordinating the proposal. That means that they think about the application a bit differently to me. In particular, they structure the budget to avoid future problems. While I see the budget as a demonstration of an ability to plan a project, they see a larger picture. For them, a carefully constructed budget will stand you in good stead when the award needs to be renegotiated and when the project is being executed.

Indirect costs: They have two rates for indirect costs (overheads) – one for government and another for the rest. My university should do that. While it would be difficult to reach agreement as to what the rate should be, there would be considerable long-term advantages, both in how people think about these costs, and how they are applied.

At the moment, we are supposed to calculate the correct costs for each project, using a costing model designed to fit any activity that RMIT might undertake. In my experience, that hardly ever happens – applicants are reluctant to engage in the process, and resent the idea that they should put a ‘management fee’ on their work. Some departments take an arbitrary cut ‘off the top’ of every grant that they can.

Setting a single rate for overheads would have the following advantages:

  • It makes it very easy to explain to applicants what the rate is, and what it represents.
  • It makes it easy to apply to any eligible application, and to check if it has been included.
  • If required, funding agencies can be provided with the underlying calculations and explanatory documentation, so that it is clear what is being costed.
  • It moves the discussion from ‘why should I’ to ‘how do I get rid of this’. It moves the emphasis to a process that should happen, and will only be excluded in special cases.

I think that there would need to be transparency about where the overheads go within the university. It is important that Schools, Centres, Institutes, Colleges, and central groups like the Library and the Research Office, understand what is (and isn’t) coming to them.

While it would be difficult to calculate an accurate rate, we are better off starting that process, and getting better over time, than continuing our current ad hoc system.

Staff development: While we do a lot of development work with our researchers, we do very little staff development for research administrators, aside from the excellent ARMS professional development program. Most of what I know I’ve learned by doing (which is an excellent way to learn), and by attending sessions that were primarily intended for academics.

At Northwestern, the Research Office organises a formal program of development that generally covers the details of post-award processes. In addition to that, staff have a volunteer program that hosts talks and helps staff to prepare for their accreditation as Research Administrators. I like the idea of the volunteer-led professional development program.

Induction of new hires: We should meet with every new researcher and (a) provide them with the information that they need to understand the university, and (b) talk to them about the work that they want to do and the applications that they want to write. We could then give them an induction kit and show them how to create a tailored calendar of grants.

Finally, I learned a lot of acronyms and jargon. We live in our own little worlds, and build shorthand from our own experience. That is only natural, but it can be a little daunting for someone from another country. In one meeting I had to shyly ask what a ‘Grants Officer’ was, since it was clearly different from all the research administrators sitting around the table. As it turns out, Grants Officers sit in the central research office, while Research Administrators sit in Schools (which are the equivalent of our Faculties or Colleges).

Thank you, ARMS and NCURA, it was wonderful.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

5 Responses to Learning from others

  1. LIsa McLean says:

    Brilliant post, Jonathon, it sounds like it was a wonderful trip and thank you for sharing your insights from it. I might tap you on the shoulder at ARMS in Wellington for some more!

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Lisa. I won’t be at ARMS this year. Maybe next time round.

      If you are thinking of applying for the ARMS/NCURA Fellowship, drop me a line at RMIT.

      Like

  2. Excellent article. I reported to NCURA’s Global Collaborate Community. If you aren’t a part of that community, I hope you might consider joining!

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Tricia

      I tried to join, but it looks like I need to be a paid-up member of NCURA to contribute. US$175 per annum is too much for me, since I’m not based in the USA.

      Thanks for sharing the article. I really enjoyed my ARMS / NCURA Fellowship, and wrote the article, in part, to encourage others to apply.

      Like

  3. Gai Doran says:

    Hi Jonathan, I really enjoyed your report, which Tricia shared. I was an NCURA/SARIMA fellow in 2016, and found the experience to be extraordinary!! I’m originally from Wollongong in NSW, and have been in the US for many years. If you find yourself on the East Coast, come and visit us at Yale.

    Best wishes, Gai

    Like

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