NORDP 2015 Conference Report: When Research Development is Just One Part of Your Job Description

By Sarah Pollock-Wisdom, Washington State University

Presenters: Michael Spires (University of Colorado, Boulder) & Kellie Dyslin (Northern Illinois University)

Background of the presenters:  Both presenters have experienced with this topic. Kellie Dyslin has been in research development for fifteen years. Her work in RD began with a nonprofit where she worked to launch projects and find grant opportunities…all without realizing that she was actually participating in research development. Now she works at NIU, where she helps investigators put their best foot forward.  Michael Spires has been in research development for ten years. He spent some time working with the Smithsonian and now works with humanities and social science faculty at UC Boulder.

This session covered four areas:

–          Objectives

–          Definitions

–          Challenges & Opportunities

–          Best Practices

The objectives for the session were that the participants would 1) Gain an understanding of the challenges and opportunities inherent in the positions that blend research and proposal development. 2) Understand how blended positions are different from separate, full-time research development roles; and 3) Gain tools for enhancing one’s ability to conduct research and proposal development as only one responsibility among many.

The presenters started by defining some of their terms (with help from the audience):

–          Research Development – the bucket of things that happens before we put a proposal together (aka relationship building; identifying community partners; internal seed grants; positioning; helping faculty talk to program officers, etc…)

–          Proposal Development – This narrows down to specific projects.  Often this is where the work starts for most of us with (formatting of bios, C&Ps, COIs, etc…).  Although we might want to help with Research Development (also referred to as the “pre-pre proposal part”), it is typically mentors in the PI’s field that assist in this area. Once you have worked with a PI once or twice, though, they are more likely to come to you for research development assistance.

–          Research Administrator – This person makes sure everything is compliant. They monitor internal & external deadlines. They may help with budgets. Assisting with budgets is a good inroad to getting more involved with research development activities. Most PIs are delighted to hand the budget off to someone else, and once they see your ability to help them, they may be open to more input from you in other areas.

The presenters asked the audience to consider a question: Is our time on the nitty-gritty details (formatting biosketches, checking margins, adding page numbers) really valuable? Although such mundane activities take our time away from the critical area of research development, the presenters argued that the time spend on details is valuable, if only for the fact that then proposals are not returned without review for noncompliance. While it may feel like we format biosketches endlessly, typically we are not working with the same PIs every time; hopefully the PIs learn from the help we give them and grow out of needing our assistance in that area. To alleviate the time spent on these mundane details, one audience member suggested hiring undergraduates to format the bios. Another audience member shared how she keeps a spreadsheet of all she does so that she can show her supervisor and justify her requests for student hires.

Next the presenters discussed the challenges and opportunities to a job that involves more than simply research development. These challenges and opportunities sometimes go hand-in-hand:

  • The mindset of “I have to do everything” has its pros and cons. From processing and submitting a proposal to staff meetings to your own professional development, to…the list goes on. Fitting all of this in to a 40-hour workweek is almost impossible. Yet our tendency to “do everything” also means that we get to start from the inception of the idea, seeing it through to becoming a competitive proposal.
  • Another aspect that is both a challenge and opportunity is the extensive institutional knowledge developed in our position. The challenge is that such knowledge could “walk out the door,” so to speak, when an individual retires. The opportunity is that we tend to gather lots of information in our role, so we have much information to share with faculty, sometimes informing them of something they didn’t even know existed.
  • Another opportunity our position offers is the chance to participate in meaningful discoveries.  Spires talked about an opportunity he had to help with a project to bring broadband internet to a number of rural communities. This helped the communities retain companies that were getting tired of cobbling together their internet and truly made an impact of those small towns.
  • Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good is a challenge we face. When PIs want to make changes in the last 40 minutes before a deadline, you need to have the relationship and trust built up so that you can tell them “no,” and they will listen to you. You need to know when it is okay if not everything is perfect, and you need to be able to convince the PI of the same.
  • Another opportunity we have is the chance to educate PIs on how to make guidelines and procedures work for them. We can help them see that every part of the proposal is there to tell their story and is valuable. Just submitting a Facilities & Equipment document that covers every piece of equipment that has ever been in the lab is not helpful for the funder. You can guide the PIs on how to be strategic in documents that may seem mundane to them.
  • An audience member mentioned that, in her experience, incorrect IRB can be a serious roadblock.  Sometimes her faculty receive emails to fix their IRB but, for whatever reason, don’t do it. She has recently requested to be cc’ed on such emails so that she can prompt the faculty if necessary.
  • We have the opportunity to offer trainings to faculty, both in person and online. To incentivize faculty, audience members suggest providing food or asking the Dean to provide external reviewers to help with proposal critiques.

Question: One audience member asked the presenters to share their thoughts on having research development opportunities available to graduate students and postdocs. They both heartily supported the idea, saying that such opportunities are invaluable for the students. They suggested having R&D offices come in to speak to undergraduate classes or having an entire class based around developing a grant.

Question: Another audience member wondered where post-award activities (reports) fit in. The presenters said that post-award activities are actually quite critical to obtaining new funding.  They shared that Program Officers have long memories and timely post-award activities are important for maintaining a good relationship with the agency. They described it as a feedback loop, with reporting requirements feeding back in to getting an initial award.

The final part of the presentation was a discussion of best practices in the face of such a challenging, multifaceted job. The presenters gave the following suggestions:

  • They said that it is a problem that we glorify “busy” and “crisis mode.” By doing this, we do not give ourselves the opportunity to say “no,” and sometimes that is exactly what is needed. Of course, it can be challenging to enforce this because institutional backing is needed. “But,” they asked, “wouldn’t it be more useful overall if we took all the time that we spend on last-minute rush proposals and invested it in development activities?  They suggested keeping a record of late-proposal-offenders so that a conversation can be had with repeat offenders. If faculty really object to an internal deadline that 3 or 5 days ahead of the agency deadline, Spires suggested reminding them that Harvard has an internal 15-day rule!  The presenters also suggested scheduling time for thought, reflection, updating information, doing funding searches, etc…. They said to treat this time like a meeting, not allowing yourself to schedule over it.  At UC Boulder, Spires said that Monday has been designated as a day without any meetings. He uses this day to catch up on emails from the weekend, do funding searches, and perform other research activities that require a block of uninterrupted time.
  • Networking is also a valuable practice, whether with colleagues internally at your institution or through large meetings like NORDP. It is worth taking time in your week to cultivate these relationships.
  • Showing interest in your faculty’s work was something Spires suggested from his own experience. He attends functions and presentations in the departments he supports. He said that this gives the investigators he works with a different view of him. Another idea to show such interest and commitment to an area was to co-locate, getting an office in or near the places where most of your investigators work.

The session concluded at this point because of time constraints, but, if audience is an indicator, there seems to be much more to be said on this fascinating topic.

Author: Julie Rogers

Research Development Associate, Oregon Health & Science University

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