A conceptual framework for the future of successful research administration.

Author:Lintz, Elizabeth M.


Historically, research administrators have largely been reactive to their environment. They reviewed proposals rather than creating them. They channeled proposals through the bureaucratic process rather than championing them toward award status. Recently, research administration has seen dramatic changes that affect fundamental aspects of the research administrator's role. Research administrators have become key participants in funded research strategic planning and leaders at the department, college, and university levels in attracting and managing external research dollars. The expanding nature of the research administrator position is attributable to increases in sponsored research dollars, competitiveness for those dollars, complexity of meeting sponsor funding requirements, and accountability for managing research dollars. To achieve success in obtaining funding, research administrators must be knowledgeable in numerous areas-accounting, law, technology, academic content, clinical trials, economic trends, public and social policy, and global issues. Likewise, institutions must recognize research administrators as valuable assets, and be willing to incorporate non-academics into the top levels of institutional strategic planning.

This paper presents a conceptual framework for the future of research administration based on six cornerstones of effective management: Mission, Information, Communication, Collaboration, Transition or Transformation, and Outcomes. This model serves to assist both the seasoned research administrator and someone new to the field. The cornerstones also contain key strategies that institutional officials can adapt to their needs, level of resources, and funding goals.

Historical Context

A 1945 report to President Franklin Roosevelt by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, defended the government's increases in scientific investment and the existence of what would become the National Science Foundation (NSF). While Bush's report was not a blueprint for research administration, it nevertheless contains clues for the establishment and success of the field.

Bush identified medical schools and universities as primarily responsible for basic research, and uniquely positioned to improve society via ideals he considered germane: 1) diffusion and flow of scientific knowledge (including the international exchange of ideas); 2) application of basic research to particular problems (applied research); 3) discovering and developing talent in youth; and thus, 4) full employment.

While not specifically mentioning research administration, Bush recognized that, to achieve these goals, a group of professionals would be needed to ensure the continued flow of scientific research.

The Conceptual Framework

The framework is based on six cornerstones essential to pre- and post-award research administration: Mission, Information, Communication, Collaboration, Transition or Transformation, and Outcomes. This framework proposes that a unit's ability to apply these cornerstones and adapt its operations appropriately will help it determine its level of success in achieving goals. A unit may be defined as broadly as a central office or as narrowly as a department.


A Mission is central to the function of any entity, and may consist of single or multiple components. Institutions of higher education (IHEs) have multi-tiered missions because their purposes are so complex. The challenge for IHEs is to transition from a more traditional mission to one that addresses the changing nature of society and the communities they serve. Society expects IHEs not only to educate and develop future leaders, but to lead in critical research areas and technological development (as evidenced by the increasing numbers of university-industry partnerships). Further, IHEs are increasingly expected to practice civic responsibility, both locally and globally. It is no longer enough to focus on teaching or on research in the abstract. Universities educate the world's students.

Essential Components for a Modern, Progressive Mission

Among the key elements essential to the IHE Mission are:

Education and critical inquiry. Education--of students, communities, and governments--is the primary goal of IHEs. The education of students in critical inquiry ensures a future generation of researchers, who in turn may share their knowledge to the benefit of their communities and society as a whole in such varied specialties as education, public service, medicine, and law. Through innovative research, IHEs educate their communities, empowering them with knowledge born of discovery. Research administrators, in collaboration with IHE investigators and offices of public relations, convey findings from research and outreach activities to society. These findings in turn inform local, state, and federal governments as they address community issues.

Research. The goals of education and critical inquiry and research frequently overlap. The importance of research cannot be overstated, as it enhances current and introduces new knowledge to the potential benefit of every aspect of society. Nor can the importance of research administrators be overstated. In addition to helping investigators create proposals, research administrators ensure the accurate and efficient processing of awards from initial receipt to final closeout. By studying trends in funding, legislation, and policy, research administrators expand the knowledge base of investigators and help them focus on appropriate funding sources.

Civic responsibility. Formerly, IHEs existed to educate and conduct research. Today IHEs are expected to contribute to the difficult questions facing society, and to develop superior technology. IHEs have a civic responsibility, and the public is ready to hold them accountable for that role. Research administrators play a crucial role in ensuring research compliance with federal, state, and local regulations, as well as sponsor requirements. Through Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) initiatives, research administrators have begun to take a proactive approach to problem solving.

Self-sustainability. Economic slowdowns create cuts in state budgets, which can reduce institutional budgets by millions of dollars. In turn, many IHE administrations rely on entrepreneurship to obtain funds, not only for research but for general operating support and capital projects. IHEs must find alternative ways to raise sufficient resources to ensure the continued quality education of their students. By collaborating with IHE development officers, research administrators help apply an entrepreneurial spirit in securing public and private funds for a variety of projects while maintaining high accountability standards. Partnerships with industry are one avenue for this endeavor.

Industrial and technological corporations increasingly collaborate with IHEs to tap the potential for research, development (e.g., patents, licensing), and other innovations. Both IHEs and corporations understand that these collaborations increase financial capital for all involved. In addition, these partnerships build the human capital needed to advance global competitiveness, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.


Information is the second cornerstone of the conceptual framework. When developing or revising a strategic plan, early considerations should be given to the primary stakeholders involved for each part of the plan. This determination will guide a unit's method of employing this cornerstone. Different stakeholders require different information at different times and in different ways, depending on goals and expected outcomes. Information strategies need to be specific to each stakeholder's needs.

During pre-award processes, information is more than...

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