November/December 2023Vol. XXXVI No. 2

A Third Update on Research Administration

Anne White

Over the course of several progress reports in these pages, most recently in fall 2022, the Institute’s research administration leadership has outlined the ongoing transformation of our research and sponsored activity enterprise.

This third update continues in the same vein, offering a lens on current activities and next steps, especially as we embark on the next phase of change. 

As announced in September, pending the appointment of a Senior Vice Provost for Research, much of the portfolio overseen by the Vice President for Research (VPR) for the past decade will return to the auspices of the Provost’s Office. Organizationally, Research Administration Services is currently with Research Development, Research Administration Systems and Support, and other units under the Vice President for Research (VPR), whereas OSATT Core, the Technology Licensing Office (TLO), and Corporate Relations are under the provost. The new senior vice provost for research will bring them all together, among other changes. This is a good thing. 

The purpose of the research administration enterprise is to support the faculty’s vision. That is, it exists to enable research programs as varied, collaborative, and creative as the quest for knowledge itself. Since 2019, research administration teams have been thoroughly reorienting all aspects of their operations to better serve the needs of today’s researchers, amid a dynamic funding and policy environment. Strategic hiring, the creation of RAS and OSATT Core, process improvements, and robust training and mentoring programs have fostered a team culture that is agile, knowledgeable, focused on the principal investigator (PI), and committed to achieving seamless coordination.

Two new offices working together 

Launched in spring 2020, Research Administration Services (RAS) serves as the central administrative office for submitting proposals and accepting and managing awards on behalf of MIT, for sponsors of all types – federal and non-federal, including industry. Three major functions of the RAS office are supported by a team structure:

  • Contract and grant administrators, the main point of contact for PIs and DLCIs, are responsible for the review, submission, negotiation, receipt, and management of all externally funded sponsored research proposals and awards.
  • The subawards team is responsible for the issuance of third-party contractual agreements, including sponsor vetting, flow-down of sponsor terms and conditions, and negotiations.
  • The data services team reviews and maintains all proposal and award information, including terms and conditions, budgets, and all project activity. 

The other new office, formally launched in summer 2022, is OSATT Core; it is one of the three offices that now compose OSATT, the others being the Technology Licensing Office (TLO) and Corporate Relations. With special expertise in industry engagement, OSATT Core is the primary negotiator of industry-sponsored research agreements, working closely with RAS and the TLO. Within OSATT Core:

  • Catalysts provide an initial point of contact for PIs and industry research sponsors, helping to develop and refine project ideas and expectations toward a mutually beneficial engagement.
  • The strategic transactions team drafts, reviews, and negotiates non-federal sponsored research and collaboration agreements, as well as non-disclosure, data use, material transfer and other research-related agreements.
  • Alliance managers connect PIs with the appropriate information and resources they need to facilitate their commitments under existing agreements with industry research sponsors and collaborators.

The operations of RAS and OSATT Core are broadly familiar to most DLCIs, after a year of concerted outreach (and I hope this update helps increase awareness); feedback from PIs and administrators has supported continuous improvement of communication approaches and operations. RAS and VPR have made significant staffing changes to keep pace with MIT’s growing research portfolio, the complexity of international collaborations, and federal research compliance requirements. OSATT Core has implemented an improved workflow, with better technical support via a contract management tool, for all industry-sponsored research agreements and other agreements that require the office’s assistance, input, or negotiation support. In these ways and countless others, we’re taking steps to address the systems and processes that can be made to work better.

A word about coordination

Sponsor requirements and policies are extremely complex. This interactive online resource explaining the full life cycle of a sponsored research award shows how many offices and teams work together to bring an idea to life. To keep everything moving efficiently through each phase, handoffs for necessary reviews and other processes ought to be streamlined, reliable, and transparent. 

It is nontrivial to measure the full life cycle of an award from start to finish – pre-award and post-award, from proposal preparation to award closeout. But one interesting metric that we have been looking at is the turnaround time during the pre-award phase. MIT requires that complete and final proposals be submitted to RAS five business days in advance of the sponsor deadline date. However, MIT does allow for incomplete and non-final proposals to be submitted to RAS. This presents an opportunity to use the turnaround time – defined as the time between submission to RAS and submission to the sponsor – to identify parts of the processes at MIT that might be running less smoothly than desired. 

Here’s what we found. There were over 3,400 proposals in fiscal year 2023. The average turnaround time for all proposals, including non-final proposals, was only 6.9 days. (Publicly available data suggest two weeks may be more typical at other universities.) Significant outliers raised the average turnaround time above the median, and we are examining those cases by hand. We can see that a need for under-recovery funding, international engagement or export control reviews, and special PI status requests appear to be correlated with longer-than-average turnaround times. Looking ahead, the new approach to funding under-recovery on sponsored research (see below) should alleviate one cause of delay, and we are working to reduce, or at least help PIs anticipate, others. 

Continuous improvement

Having attended many group meetings, faculty meetings, and council meetings this year, I want you to know that the time you spend telling us about your challenges and priorities is time well spent. Together, we have made progress on several initiatives of note:

Expanding the Research@MIT app: The research administration app for PIs and DLCI admins, first launched just over a year ago, continues to do more with each successive update. Non-sponsored accounts (gifts, discretionary accounts, and faculty startup funding) are now visible alongside sponsored awards, with drill-down views into categories of expenses incurred to date. The TLO, part of OSATT, has also moved its invention disclosure form into Research@MIT with a streamlined new interface.

Removing a bottleneck in background intellectual property (IP): Until recently, RAS, TLO, and OSATT Core conducted an intensive, manual review of background IP (existing MIT inventions, software, or copyrights) as a matter of routine for every proposal entered into Kuali Coeus, following legacy processes from the era of the old Office of Sponsored Programs. Going forward, the teams have developed a faster and more streamlined approach that especially leverages the role of OSATT Core in engaging with prospective industry sponsors: a review for background IP may now only be necessary in a limited set of circumstances, informed by discussions with the PI and sponsor at the earliest stages of project development.

Demystifying proposal-writing: The Research Development office in VPR, which seeks to increase MIT’s competitiveness for research funding, has created reference guides in response to faculty requests. The first is a quick guide to finding funding, which may be of particular use to early-career faculty. The second is a guide to writing a PIER plan – an appendix newly required in most proposals to the Department of Energy, in which the PI describes the project’s commitment to promoting inclusive and equitable research (PIER). The Research Development team is also heeding a request from faculty to provide more substantive feedback on proposals that are not selected to move forward in limited-submission competitions.

Supporting access to clinical data: Feedback from faculty is driving development of new resources to support the use of clinical data in research, such as a new guide to securing third-party protected health information when MIT is the recipient of such data for research purposes (Touchstone login required).

Empowering DLCIs to manage under-recovery: A longstanding challenge, the under-recovery of facilities and administrative (F&A) costs from some research sponsors has historically required PIs to seek additional funding from sources among the DLCI, School/College, and/or VPR to make ends meet. A new approach announced in October distributes up-front central funding to each DLCI so that department heads can make quicker, local decisions about most funding requests. In late 2023 and spring 2024, functionality within Research@MIT is being built to provide a dashboard and workflow to help PIs and DLCIs request, review, approve, and track under-recovery funding.

On the horizon: greater collaboration and communication

There is more work to do. As I wrote to DLCI leaders and administrators in August, it is clear that some common challenges persist – for example: uneven staffing across units to support research administration; a shortage of research-relevant financial planning tools; and gaps in informational resources, whether for employee onboarding or daily administrative tasks.

The nature of research administration is that it crosses numerous functional areas and depends on collaboration across many central administration and DLCI teams. Collaboration among VPR and the Provost’s Office, the Office of Foundation Relations, the Office of the Vice President for Finance, Information Systems and Technology, the Office of the General Counsel, the Schools/College/DLCIs, and many others has been crucial to achieving progress on tough challenges, and that will continue to be the case. Led by the Executive Vice President and Treasurer (EVPT) organization, teams across MIT are already engaged in early planning for the next-generation enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, a multi-year project that aims to modernize our core applications, streamline operational processes, and improve the quality of our data for better informed business decisions. Similarly, it was a cross-functional working group that took on the challenge of under-recovery this year. By convening working groups in this manner, we can continue to tackle a range of difficult issues together.

Faculty should also expect greater communication and guidance to help plan for and navigate the complexities of research administration, such as financial management, research compliance, and so on. This includes ongoing efforts to streamline and modernize the RAS website (among others in the VPR umbrella) and to build out the new OSATT website for all three offices: OSATT Core, TLO, and Corporate Relations. It also includes, for example, the development of more robust onboarding and training resources for research administration staff in the DLCIs.

With your advice and close engagement, staff throughout the research administration will continue to prioritize coordination, collaboration, and communication – enhancing efficiency and freeing up more time for that most-valued pursuit, creativity.