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Research office updates software, bookkeeping

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, March 23, 2007

The Office of Research recently introduced two new initiatives – a change to the business process and the implementation of a new type of electronic research software – to streamline research procedures at Notre Dame.

For faculty researchers like chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Edward Maginn, these new systems will make filing research proposals and tracking grants much easier.

A new business system

Under the new business system, which the Office of Research started in December, Maginn has three research administrators assigned to his proposals – a pre-award research administrator, a post-award administrator and a research accountant.

This new team is helpful because the management and tracking of a research project can be a time-consuming process, Maginn said. The federal government requires that research proposals go through Grants.gov – “a really complicated software interface,” Maginn said.

Just figuring out how to turn in the proposal can take several hours, he said.

“It requires a lot of expertise,” Maginn said. “The nice thing about this [new system] is that people with this expertise are being dedicated to that,” he said.

Each faculty researcher works with a pre-award administrator, a post-award administrator and a research accountant at different stages in the development of research projects.

The pre-award administrator helps the researcher with the parts of the proposal that do not directly involve the “science.” Once the grant is obtained, the post-award administrator takes over and aids the researcher in the administration of the project. The accountant takes charge of managing the money that the researcher obtains from the grant.

Now that the Office of Research assigns administrators to be “partners” with the faculty – rather than overseers of their progress – it is relieving the faculty from much of the burden of handling the administrative aspects of their research projects, Maginn said.

“Any time you can take some of the administrative burden off the faculty and let the faculty do the research part and not have to do the administrative part, you are going to be more productive,” he said. “The idea is, if you can make the faculty more productive, they can spend more time with students and doing research and not doing accounting and bookkeeping.”

Since the new business system was started, Maginn said he has submitted six proposals for research grants – including three in the past week. And, he said, the process of submitting these last six “definitely” went much faster than before the implementation of the new business system.

New software

The second new initiative is the implementation of a new software program from InfoEd, a company that makes an integrated software package that can manage the whole research process, Maginn said. The research administrators can use InfoEd for several steps of the process to ensure that researchers win grants and comply with the guidelines of the grants, he said.

InfoEd is currently used by leading research universities like Columbia, Northwestern, Duke and UCLA. The idea for bringing this new system to Notre Dame developed from discussions about how “to streamline the process and become paperless,” said Michael Edwards, director of the Office of Research.

Since many federal government agencies have converted – and many are planning to convert – to an electronic format for grant proposal submissions. Notre Dame needed to implement a new system to adjust to this change, he said.

The Office of Research began the 18-month long implementation process at the start of the year for an InfoEd program. It should be fully operational by June 2008, Edwards said.

These two new initiatives signal a step forward in Notre Dame’s ambitious effort to join the ranks of top-tier research institutions, an objective University President Father John Jenkins described in his address to the faculty last fall and which Provost Tom Burish echoed in a subsequent address.

Jenkins told faculty members that Notre Dame has made significant strides in research in the past several years but said the University has the potential to rise much higher in the rankings of top research universities.

Now that the Office of Research operates under this new business model and with the scheduled implementation of new software, Edwards said he is confident that the number of research grant proposals will increase.

Every research administrator in the Office of Research can handle 200 proposals a year, Edwards said, so the office will be able to process up to 1,200 proposals a year. This year between 800 and 900 proposals will be submitted, he said.

“We fully expect that the number of proposals will increase,” Edwards said. “We expect the number of awards to increase.”

Maginn said the new initiatives streamline the administrative aspects of the research process – an improvement to the infrastructure that is vital for Notre Dame to improve its reputation as a research university.

“The analogy is that if we want to have a good football program, we need to have good facilities for the football team,” he said. “If you want to have a great research university, you have to have great research infrastructure. A big part of that is supporting the people who get the grants to pay for the research.”

Terri Hall, the associate director of pre-award teams, said since the new business process was started in December, the reaction from faculty members has been “very, very encouraging.”

“We did a couple of faculty surveys a year or so ago, and that was one of the things that they pointed out – that the paperwork burden of the proposals … took up so much of their time,” Hall said.

Now that the Office of Research has assumed a lot of the non-science and scholarly activity of the process, the faculty members can focus more on their research projects – a business process Edwards called “revolutionary.”

“From an industry standard … this is a very different way of handling proposal submission,” he said.

Edwards said he believes this is the best process because it creates a closer relationship between faculty members and research administrators.

“It’s a very important relationship,” he said. “Researchers need as much support as we can give them.”