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Approaching research administration: Risk?
Key is creating consistent project memory
Universities in North America face risks in the way they execute research administration, an expert says.
Typically, research universities take the project approach to studies, which results in a lack of consistent project memory, says Carl Weatherell, chief project officer, research and international, Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
"A lot of risks universities are faced with now are financially-based," Weatherell says. "In Canada, a lot of projects are complex, with multiple funders."
So if someone at the beginning of the study process doesn't understand study budgets and cycles when negotiating a study budget with sponsors, investigators and a research team could be stuck with a project they are unable to deliver, Weatherell explains.
For example, Weatherell was on the board of a large consortium project, and the people writing the budget allotted 1 percent of the total budget for managing the project.
"The industry metrics are a minimum of 10 percent, so right there you have a problem and can't deliver that project," he adds. "We have a $45 million consortium project, and we'll give you $450,000 to deliver management across the university over a number of years — it's impossible."
This approach to federally-funded projects is unmanageable, Weatherell says.
This is just one example why there is risk in the way universities typically conduct research, he says.
Universities follow an administrative approach to research. This means that different offices handle various parts of the research study cycle, and there is no project memory as the study moves from one stage to the next, Weatherell explains.
For example, a university will have a pre-award office help an investigator write a grant proposal to a government agency, Weatherell says.
Then a post-award office will assist with what happens when the study is executed, and this might include research accounting, risk management, and health and safety issues, he says.
"This is a silo approach to research administration," Weatherell says.
The better approach would be a project management approach, in which one office manages the project from start to finish, relying on project memory to avoid common obstacles and mistakes, he says.
"For example, if a faculty member is working on a proposal, the typical administrator looks at the budget and says, 'You need 10 students and some equipment, and this is a good budget,'" Weatherell says.
"I would look at it and say, 'How will you phase this? What is the contingency in each area? Are rates going up?'" he says. "And I would let faculty members know that it will not be done in five days."
At Carleton University, the risk manager is required to review every contract over $300,000, Weatherell says.
"So if investigators want $1 million for research and they give us a contract to review, the risk manager will review it and be a part of the negotiations," he explains.
The risk manager is part of a team that deals with every research project, which creates the necessary consistency and project memory.
"We put teams together with broad or specific knowledge," Weatherell says. "For contracts, the risk manager will look at clauses; the information technology person will look at everything, but focus on IT things, the financial experts look at the funding and note what we can meet and what we can't meet, and I will look at everything and ask questions and learn from the other experts."
From the investigator's perspective, this means there now is a team in the room when they discuss a research contract, Weatherell says.
For instance, in one research project review, the team told an investigator that her budget cycle was unrealistic and should be adjusted, he recalls.
"I had a comment from a faculty member who said this was the first time anyone ever helped her with a budget, and it was really good," Weatherell says.
The project team's goals are to keep the project managed and make sure everyone is fully engaged, he says.
It's important to make sure all partners are on equal footing, and good communication with funders is a risk reduction strategy as well, Weatherell notes.
"We had a project that had some challenges with it, so I went to one of the funders and said, 'We have a challenge, so how can we work together to work this out?'" Weatherell says. "He was stunned and said, 'I've never done this before.'"
The way to approach the sponsor is to say, "We both have a problem — you gave us the money, and we're trying to do a project, but if it doesn't work out, then we both look bad," Weatherell suggests.
Through this type of communication, the sponsor might provide additional funds to help complete the project.
In this case, there was greater risk if the research team didn't do anything about the looming problem.
They key is to look at risk from the flip side of, "What would happen if I didn't do something?" Weatherell says.