Thursday, May 29, 2014

Your Research Administrator is your friend

It seems that lately I have encountered several situations in which research administrators and principal investigators (PIs) have difficulty communicating.  Perhaps some of this results from poorly worded, difficult to decipher email requests due to the alphabet soup of acronyms that is the world of research administration.  Perhaps some of this results from the PI not considering the research administrator to be an important member of the proposal preparation team.  No matter what the reason, it is very important to the success of every proposal to have a good partnership between the PI and research administration staff. 

Imagine that you create the perfect R01 proposal.  The proposed research is groundbreaking, and you have assembled a top-notch team of experts.  All of your materials for the grant are final and have been approved by your organization's central grants office.  All that remains on June 5th is to push the button, and you are on your way to hitting the grant jackpot, right? 

Except there is a problem. 

It turns out that your research administrator was not aware of the importance or existence of key letters of support for your application.  These documents are vital, as they demonstrate that you have access to the specialized data you need to complete the work, and an ongoing partnership with a key organization.  Without these letters, reviewers will be left scratching their heads, wondering why you did not include the letters of support that you referenced in the text. (You did remember to reference them in the text, right?) 

There is another problem. 

The Request for Applications (RFA) to which you applied includes instructions for a specialized type of biosketch in a format that is different from the ones you have included.  Now in addition to looking like you forgot to include your letters, you are also showing the reviewers your inability to follow the directions and meet the requirements of the RFA. 

Perhaps these examples are not issues that will be enough to completely sink a grant.  However, do you want to put the idea into reviewers' minds that you are not thorough and did not care enough to read and follow the instructions?  Given that we are in a funding climate where a grant that ranks in the 14th percentile may not be good enough to receive funding, every point counts.  Reviewers need to take away an overall impression that you know what you are doing.

Then there is another problem.  The grant was uploaded using a version of Adobe Professional that does not work well with  When your proposal was uploaded, the first page of your Research Strategy was cut off.  The reviewers will not be able to see that fantastic introduction or background that you wrote.  Because you handed off the grant to the research administrator and figured she would "take care of it", you did not think to log into the era commons and check to make sure that your grant uploaded correctly.  Now the error correction window has passed and you are out of luck. 

All of these issues, and many more, can be prevented by having regular communication with your research administration staff.  Having a friendly relationship, where you can pick up the phone and ask a quick question if need be, is important for all PIs.  In the examples mentioned above, if the research administrator had been involved in some of your proposal development meetings, he or she would have understood the need for the letters and known to include them.  He or she would also have likely reviewed the RFA more closely and walked you through it in a sit-down meeting, if you had made yourself available for such a meeting.  Finally, the research administrator would have been accustomed to being in more regular communication with you, making it likely that he or she would have sent a quick note reminding you that your grant was submitted and should be reviewed in the system. 

Research administrators may not be responsible for the scientific portions of your grant proposal, but their errors or inattention to detail can sabotage your entire project. Develop a relationship with your research administrator in which he or she feels like a member of the team.  This will make him or her less afraid to correct you, or even your entire research team, if you are not correctly interpreting instructions.  Invite your research administrator to some of your research team's meetings, allowing for at least a basic understanding of your research goals.  Finally, develop a relationship in which the research administrator feels empowered to do his or her job without fearing your wrath. Just because you are unhappy with institutional policies and procedures does not mean he or she can bend or break the rules for you. 

For more about research administration, visit the Society of Research Administrators International.

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