Reframing research administration.

Author:Cole, Sharon Stewart


This paper expands a Delphi study previously reported in an article entitled "Research Administration as a Living System" that was published by the Journal of Research Administration (Cole, 2007). A second Delphi study was undertaken to obtain the perspective of research administrators in an attempt to identify the future direction of research administration and to identify ways for building stronger working relationships between research faculty and research administrators. In this way viewpoints were compared and a determination made as to collective concerns, points of agreement, and disagreement. Also, by obtaining an understanding of the nature of research administration, adding theories of change, and identifying methods of implementing organizational change, a model for reframing or restructuring research administration into a living system is created.

The Research Administration Process

The research administration system includes the people and organizations that supply research products, services, and knowledge. Research administration is essentially a service-delivery system. This system interacts with the federal, state, and private sponsors; the academic community and school systems; the employees of all these organizations and the communities they serve; the environment; and the nation as a whole.

The processes involved in research administration could be classified as the decision process, the research process, the evaluation process, and the control process. These processes are all interdependent. A system can be defined as a network of interdependent processes that work together to accomplish an aim, purpose, or goal. The system converts dollars and other inputs into value (service) that helps project and research effectiveness. The quality of a system's output can be defined as the perception of consumers and stakeholders about the value of those services. Perceptions (feedback) about that value are used to govern future resource allocations and changes to system processes. The efficiency of these processes, federal agencies and recipients, directly affect the cost, timeliness, and productivity of the programs being sponsored (Kirby, 1996).

Over $200 billion is awarded by the federal government in grants to carry out a variety of public programs and research projects. Up to 95% of some federal agencies' appropriated budgets may be passed on to universities through grants (Kirby, 1996). Sponsors have a strong, vested interest in the quality of management and production of grant recipients. Yet federal interest in the management of research programs has focused on financial standards, compliance, and internal control. Improvements will require systematic and highly integrated efforts along with a holistic view of the role administrators play in the larger system of sponsored programs. Some issues involve political and other variables that are simply outside one's control. Actions to address many issues are being handicapped by outdated assumptions about the role of research administration and the nature of management (Kirby, 1996). Some views Kirby notes as worthy of consideration:

  1. There are some assumptions about the role of research administration: Assumption #1: The organization follows a typical hierarchal chart. Assumption #2: The primary focus and role of research administration is to assure that rules are followed, regardless of where one is in the organization. Assumption #3: The person in the organization box above or below is the problem.

  2. Research administration is viewed as a system to provide value and is an essential service-delivery system.

  3. Research administration is interdependent on the actions of sponsors and performers (faculty). Neither sponsor nor performers can achieve its purpose without the other.

    Social, economic, and technological changes have made the traditional assumptions and functional organizational model of administration insufficient for the way we work today.

    The Delphi Study

    The Delphi study was performed to bring about growth and collaboration for the next generation of researchers and administrators. As Cole (2007) notes:

    The Delphi research method [is] not designed to determine statistical significance but involves experts in a discussion similar to a focus group to determine future direction. Unlike a focus group, the Delphi participants [do] not meet physically. An online survey was prepared by the researcher and distributed through email to individual participants. (p. 19) The survey consisted of four open-ended discussion questions, which are listed in the Research Administrators' Viewpoint section below. The results of the study that was offered first to research faculty are summarized below in the Faculty Viewpoint section. To expand this research, the study was repeated with senior research administrators at various major research universities as the target population in an attempt to obtain comparative data.

    Faculty Viewpoint

    The 32 faculty experts who participated in the previously reported Delphi study (Cole, 2007) offered 40 distinct opinions or recommendations for change. The Delphi study concluded that change was required by faculty and research administrators to realize a more unified organization. The major concerns voiced by the faculty participants were: (1) the system of research administration should address processes to streamline proposal submission and review; (2) administrators should focus more on service and less on regulations; (3) the paperwork burden should be reduced; (4) more financial assistance to faculty research is desired such as the return of indirect cost, or matching funds; (5) better communication between research administration and faculty; and (6) faculty could show more respect and understanding to research administrators (Cole, 2007).

    Grant funding provides one of the main avenues for faculty scholarly growth in higher education. The technical know-how needed to write proposals, the lack of institutional reward, and the negative...

To continue reading