The resource allocation program at the University of California, San Francisco: getting more from intramural funding bucks.

Author:Volpe, Emanuela
 
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Introduction

Intramural funding programs within both large and small research institutions are an essential mechanism to foster collaborative, novel, and preliminary research activity, as well as further institutional research strategic goals. Seed or pilot funding has been critical to individual research efforts, enabling researchers to establish experimental feasibility and generate preliminary data for more mature grant submission efforts. As Balaji and colleagues noted in their study, receipt of internal awards of even $20,000 can serve to jumpstart research projects and their subsequent higher-level funding (Balaji, Knisely, and Blazyk, 2007). Research institutions and their associated individual programs and departments can utilize such internal funding mechanisms to strategically support specific areas of research. The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), like many large research institutions, has many internal funding programs sponsored by private foundations, large National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding-based centers, departments, and schools.

At most research institutions, intramural funding opportunities are run independently of each other. In 2007, UCSF developed an intramural funding opportunity management program that accommodates multiple funding agencies/programs and grant mechanisms, simultaneously offering much added value to the campus-wide intramural funding enterprise. Having determined that good models for efficient intramural funding opportunity management did not exist at similar institutions, the UCSF Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) proposed, through funding from its NIH CTSA grant (PI-Dr. Joseph McCune), to establish the Strategic Opportunities Support (SOS) Center that would support a seed grant funding program. The SOS Center developed an initial infrastructure for this seed funding program that allowed for efficient publicity, application and review of seed funding proposals. We soon realized this infrastructure could be utilized more broadly across the campus.

In an effort to support the most promising novel research ideas and young investigators, as well as the work of established investigators and internationally recognized faculty, the SOS Center further improved its initial infrastructure for the distribution of seed funds. The new, improved infrastructure, based in part on the NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR), was named the Resource Allocation Program (RAP) and was launched in the fall of 2007. In 2011, RAP was placed under the centralized management of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost's Office in order to realize the objective of supporting the entire campus and additional funding programs. The SOS Center continues its mission within CTSI and participates in the RAP consortium.

RAP is a campus-wide program responsible for coordinating intramural research funding opportunities. RAP serves as a consortium composed of numerous (currently 16; see Figure 1) UCSF funding agencies that may share overlapping goals while maintaining full autonomy over their funding mechanisms and awardees. (At UCSF, major funding programs are often referred to as "funding agencies".) This cooperative venture between RAP and UCSF funding agencies awards nearly $5 million per year to UCSF faculty and distributed 145 awards during FY 2012-2013. RAP is designed to harmonize the award process by providing a standardized, centralized, and transparent process for the submission, review, and tracking of intramural research funding. This single-application process allows for a more efficient and cost-effective approach.

Prior to the 2007 establishment of RAP, each UCSF funding agency ran independent competitions. A researcher had to navigate several websites to find out what funding opportunities were available and then face multiple deadlines, scattered across the entire academic year, in order to submit applications via primarily a "paper" or manual submission process. The review process was anything but uniform as each agency handled the review differently and reviewers were recruited on an as-needed basis. The reviewer pools utilized by each agency were fairly small and not able to offer broad skill sets. Conflicts of interest within each agency were a constant challenge during both the review and award process.

Program Description

RAP is a central institutional resource at UCSF, administered by the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost's Office and its component Research Development Office (RDO). Specific objectives of the program are to:

* publicize intramural funding opportunities of member agencies and coordinate high-quality review of proposals by experts appropriate to the proposal topic;

* coordinate funding of proposals among the funding agencies, maintain a database of prior proposals, and publicize successful applications on the Internet;

* provide a forum for inter-agency communication regarding any aspect of the application process; and

* carry out self-evaluation by developing metrics for success according to the RAP objectives.

RAP's benefits are well explained in its slogan, "One Application, Many Funding Opportunities, One Deadline." Llorens and Kellough (2007) described the increased efficiency and performance of a "one-stop" recruitment process in their discussion of centralizing personnel administrative services. For similar reasons, RAP was transitioned centrally on campus in order to increase the overall efficiency of intramural funding processes; to increase the visibility, accessibility and ease of use for researchers; and to minimize the administrative redundancies of the application process among funding agencies. RAP provides a common application process and a common deadline for a wide range of intramural grant mechanisms. Funding opportunities are open to all UCSF appointees in all UCSF schools and affiliated sites.

Since its inception in 2007, RAP has grown from managing three intramural funding programs to the current 16 programs, whose funds come from a variety of intramural and extramural sources. RAP's founding members comprised the UCSF School of Medicine Research Evaluation and Allocation Committee, the UCSF Gladstone Institute of Virology & Immunology Center for AIDS Research, and the CTSI SOS Center. UCSF's Academic Senate and the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center joined RAP at a later date. As additional funding agencies have joined RAP, the number of grant mechanisms has increased in number and diversity, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Organizational Structure and Governance

Bill Kirby, a long-time expert in research administration, described the need for programmatic commitment to quality, strong customer and stakeholder focus, and built-in continuous improvement processes in his Quality Management Model for successful research administration programs (Kirby, 1992). He went on to describe in a later paper the need to understand research administration programs as "systems" or consortia of "interdependent components" or stakeholders (Kirby, 1996). The RAP founding leadership also recognized the value of group buy-in and stakeholder cooperation in order to establish a successful program structure. Thus, RAP has a multi-dimensional leadership structure that includes several entities, all playing a significant role in the program's governance.

The operational RAP leadership team includes the chair and vice-chair of the RAP Executive Committee, the RAP Program Manager, and the Research Development Office Director. As shown in Figure 2, the multi-dimensional leadership team is guided by two committees: an Executive Committee and a larger RAP Committee.

The Executive Committee is composed of a chair, vice-chair, and program directors (all of whom are faculty members) whose programs have funded more than 10 percent of RAP awards in the previous two cycles. The Executive Committee provides guidance on program policy and operational issues, and meets on an as-needed basis. The committee's chair and vice-chair are appointed by the UCSF Executive Vice Chancellor. The term of office for both is three years and is renewable.

The RAP Committee, an essential aspect of the consortium-nature of the program, is composed of faculty directors and staff of the participating funding programs. Each funding program appoints one faculty member to the committee, as well as one staff member, usually a program manager, to improve up and down communication and increase effectiveness. Although faculty opinion is essential, we recognize that in order to achieve successful implementation, it is also important to involve staff members at the early stage of any discussion. Just as a scientist brings valuable perspective on medical and scientific issues, administrators can weigh in on the feasibility of programmatic matters such as budgeting, project timelines, and resource availability.

The RAP Committee regularly holds a monthly teleconference that allows all members to participate in continuous program improvement. RAP leadership requires consulting with the entire committee on significant changes regarding policy or major program improvements. This committee convenes in-person twice a year to make final funding decisions at the end of each cycle, and annually for a programmatic retreat.

RAP Program Features

Leslie Wimsatt and colleagues presented the highlights from a faculty workload survey conducted by the Faculty Standing Committee of the Federal Demonstration Partnership in Washington, D.C. (Wimsatt, Trice, and Langley, 2009). This 2009 survey highlighted the heavy administrative burden that is placed on our research faculty, with upwards of one-third of their time spent on pre- and post-award activities. Add to this the fact that grant funding success rates at NIH, the largest funder of research grants in the US, has declined by nearly 30% since 1996, sitting at approximately 18% for R01 equivalent awards...

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