Transforming Research Administration: Second UpdateMaria T. Zuber, Krystyn J. Van Vliet
Earlier this year, we provided a progress report on MIT’s work to transform its research and sponsored activity enterprise to meet the needs of principal investigators (PIs) in a changing and increasingly complex funding environment. We wrote about our efforts to build a high-performing research administration enterprise through a focus on two Ts – teams and tools. Here, we offer a second progress report.
Team building in RAS and OSATT
We shared the good news earlier this year that Vivian Holmes had joined MIT as the first-ever director of Research Administration Services (RAS). Ms. Holmes brings to the role 30 years of research administration experience, including at the Broad Institute. Most recently, she was the Assistant Dean for Research Administration at the Boston University School of Public Health. With Colleen Leslie, assistant provost for research administration, Ms. Holmes leads a full roster of RAS professionals in contract administration, subawards, and post-award management, with specialization in grants and contracts sponsored by the U.S. government and many philanthropic foundations.
The Office of Strategic Alliances and Technology Transfer (OSATT) also adapted its leadership structure as it onboarded new experts to support PIs interested in research funded by for-profit companies, international government agencies, and foundations. OSATT now comprises three coordinated offices that move PI ideas to impact, each led by an executive director. Lesley Millar-Nicholson is the executive director leading OSATT’s Technology Licensing Office (TLO), Meghan McCollum Fenno became the executive director of OSATT Core in July 2022, and John Roberts is the interim executive director of OSATT’s Corporate Relations.
We all benefited from the dedication of Ms. Millar-Nicholson and Mr. Roberts in helping to establish the OSATT Core functions with Ms. McCollum Fenno during OSATT’s standup period. This year, OSATT has successfully recruited and begun onboarding impressive new colleagues across OSATT Core, TLO, and Corporate Relations.
Process and service improvements
To better support PI-led research, MIT needs to build new strengths in our teams in RAS and OSATT, as well as the teams in the departments, labs, and centers (DLCs) – who work closely with PIs on some steps, and with RAS and OSATT on other steps. From the PI perspective, many steps feel the same whether the research is funded by a U.S. federal agency, foundation, nonprofit, for-profit company, or international government. However, specialization among our teams in RAS and OSATT reflects the fact that the considerations when converting PIs’ ideas into funded agreements differ among these external organizations.
The past eight months of team building and continued collaborations with PIs across all MIT Schools and the College, and among RAS, OSATT, and other offices, have enabled new processes in support of PIs. Just as importantly, the collaboration extends to the DLC teams that assist PIs in preparing and internally “routing” research scopes, proposals, and budgets. Some of those process improvements may be less perceptible to faculty. That represents progress if faculty find themselves spending less time concerned about behind-the-scenes administrative steps required to enable the funding and program management. Here are three examples:
First, RAS has streamlined billing agreements among MIT and many other Boston-area organizations where MIT faculty may supervise research group members or conduct some of their research. This not only makes it easier for faculty who find that these agreements create a recurring set of questions (including conflict of interest disclosures or problems for affected thesis students), but also requires much less time from the DLC support teams that play a key role.
Second, OSATT Core has revamped the services to faculty for non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), data use agreements (DUAs), material transfer agreements (MTAs), and other research-related agreements. It has been nine months since the release of the improved NDA/DUA portal that we previewed in our last update. We are pleased to report that this summer alone, we have seen almost as many requests through the portal as we did over the six prior months, with 72% of requests coming from first-time PIs. The team has also seen an increase of 67% in the number of NDAs and DUAs requested in FY22 compared with FY21.
These agreements are often part of how external organizations explore potential projects with MIT faculty, so having a streamlined process for PIs by the same team that takes point on research-related agreements has been an important improvement. We thank everyone who piloted or has now utilized the new NDA/DUA portal.
Third, we informed PIs of a process change in September involving initiating a new research-related project or agreement with an industry counterpart. Specifically, OSATT Core will take point on all new industry-sponsored research agreements, working closely with RAS and other offices, including PIs’ DLC support teams.
This process was designed to maximize faculty input and focus on their ambitious research scope, and to leverage the expertise of OSATT Core in drafting and negotiating the supporting agreements with companies. In practice, this means that PIs will gain connection to and support from an OSATT Core Catalyst as the research scope or collaboration crystallizes toward a negotiated agreement. Most internal steps for DLC support teams should feel the same, but an anticipated benefit is more efficient negotiation of agreements designed specifically to support the MIT PIs’ research projects’ purposes and research outcomes, such as publications and inventions.
New tools: PI dashboard
As we reported before, we have been developing a new PI dashboard app, Research@MIT, to serve as a one-stop shop for PIs’ research administration and related needs. We are grateful to colleagues in Information Systems and Technology (IS&T) and Research Administration Systems and Support for their hard work on this tool. A group of faculty colleagues and DLC administrative support team colleagues has been beta-testing the app since early summer; we thank them, too, for their valuable time and input. We are pleased to have rolled out Research@MIT broadly in September.
Research@MIT will enable PIs and their administrative teams to access the information and resources necessary for managing their research portfolios and budgets. Drawing from multiple MIT systems, it aims to organize research-related information in one place, including proposals, sponsored research awards, and associated financial summaries from enterprise systems including Kuali Coeus and SAP; human subjects research protocols; disclosures submitted to TLO; and NDAs and DUAs. Over time, we’ll add new features and capabilities that reflect faculty and administrator feedback.
The app is being made available to MIT users of Android, iOS/MacOS, and Windows-based devices via download from apps.mit.edu. To help us make enhancements and add features, please share your feedback with us, using the app’s “help” feature, as you start working with the dashboard.
The transformation of MIT’s research administration enterprise remains a work in progress. We’re confident in the talented professionals we’ve recruited and are pleased to see early indications that new tools already are being put to good use. We recognize that it will take time for new teams, tools, practices, and processes to cohere into a unified, well-oiled system, and we are encouraged by these positive developments.