As Challenges Mount for Academic Research, More Scientists Take Administrative Positions

Administrative Positions Date: November 9, 1992 From congressional scrutiny of universities' indirect costs to public concerns over biohazards and the ethics of animal studies, issues surrounding sponsored academic research have been dominating the headlines recently. For universities and research institutions around the United States, that means their job is getting harder, as government agencies, legislators, and even the schools themselves surround the research process with an increasingly

Nov 9, 1992
Marcia Clemmitt

Administrative Positions Date: November 9, 1992

From congressional scrutiny of universities' indirect costs to public concerns over biohazards and the ethics of animal studies, issues surrounding sponsored academic research have been dominating the headlines recently. For universities and research institutions around the United States, that means their job is getting harder, as government agencies, legislators, and even the schools themselves surround the research process with an increasingly thorny thicket of regulations designed to ward off trouble before it starts.

To cope with the growing demands of the process, even many smaller universities and colleges are consolidating their research expertise and oversight in central offices, run by administrators whose sole responsibility is overseeing the funding and conduct of research. And though few numbers exist to verify the perception, these research administrators say a growing number of scientists seem to be considering their occupation as a career option.

According to research administrators interviewed by The Scientist, a scientific background does provide experience helpful in coping with many of the current issues in the field. But, they say, scientists contemplating a move to research administration posts should also be sure they have the open minds and negotiators' temperaments this service-oriented profession requires. "Most research administrators I know came from hard science or engineering. And I think science is useful for the job," says University of Texas at Dallas president Robert Rutford, a geologist who was vice president for research at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln before taking his present position. "Scientists tend to be goal-oriented, and they deal with concrete things, not abstractions," he says.

A new voluntary certification test for research administrators is stimulating heated controversy in the field. Devised by a group of research professionals--the Research Administrators Certification Council (RACC), which began as a task force of the Society of Research Administrators--in conjunction with the New York-based Professional Testing Corp., the four-hour test includes questions on topics such as proposal development, ethical issues in research, patents and licensing, federal acquisitions regulations, budgeting and accounting, inventory control, and contract management.

The test is one of two paths to a council-sanctioned certificate designating one a certified research administrator. The other method of attaining the certification involves demonstrating 10 years of supervisory experience in the field, and submitting references and evidence of other professional credentials.

Some research administrators see the testing program as a means of encouraging less-experienced professionals to educate themselves broadly in the field, while critics point out that the field's complexity and the variation among jobs make it unlikely any test could cover the relevant material in depth.

RACC member James Pyle, a chemist who is director of the office of academic research at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., acknowledges that many jobs deal in depth with only a few aspects of the profession. But he argues that the narrowly focused but extensive nature of the knowledge such positions require is all more the reason to encourage as many people as possible to attain at least a basic knowledge of the field's whole scope.

"Lots of people are specially focused, and one of our goals is to get them to broaden their expertise," Pyle says. "We want to encourage sharing knowledge through networking and all kinds of formal and informal training."

John Christian, another advocate of certification, is vice president and general manager of the Trustees of Health and Hospitals of the City of Boston Inc., a nonprofit corporation that administers contracts for medical studies in the city health system. Christian, who came to his position from a business background, says the profession is becoming more content-specific and self-aware, with an attendant need to develop a general knowledge base and a generally accepted and disseminated code of ethics.

"The concept is ultimately to develop more generalists... people who understand something of the [sponsored research] process from cradle to grave as well as their place in it," Christian says. "Not to be able to quote chapter and verse of specific regulations, but to know what issues are relevant and to know where to go for the details."

Those expressing doubts about the merits of certification stress that most jobs require considerably less broad-based administrative knowledge than that required for certification.

"I'm outraged by the whole idea," says Yale University's Suzanne Polmar, director of grant and contract administration. "Certification generally means you can identify a body of knowledge. And that implies you have an organization somewhere that teaches it. In this case, you don't.

"And the job is not the same everywhere. A person in a small institution, for example, may need to know nothing about industry. Folks in technology transfer--you can put what they have to know about federal regulations in a thimble."

William Tash, a sociologist who is vice president for research at Temple University in Philadelphia, says it's not that he's against certification as such. But he says he is concerned that "it could eventually close the profession to all but those with a very narrow training--something like what's happened with schools of education. I've certainly seen academics do harm in the job because they didn't understand the economic and legal side. But so can a person with an administrative background who has no real knowledge of academics and research. Without a real appreciation for how research is done, administrative skills are like icing without the cake."--M.C.

Nevertheless, Rutford adds, scientists should "be sure they're willing to work hard at helping other people accomplish things before jumping into research administration jobs.

Research administrators hold a variety of titles that generally include the terms "research," "sponsored programs," or "grants and contracts." Increasingly, they are practicing their profession not just in major universities, but also in smaller academic settings; independent research institutions in all disciplines; hospitals and medical centers; industry; and local, state, and federal government agencies.

Two organizations represent their professional concerns and offer courses, meetings, and the opportunity for networking. The Chicago-based Society for Research Administrators (SRA) and the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of University Research Administrators each has a membership exceeding 2,600, with some overlap between the two organizations. Since many research administrators have no professional affiliation or belong to other groups, such as organizations of university business administrators, the exact number of professionals specializing in the field is unclear, though some estimates range as high as 35,000.

A research administrator's responsibilities can center on helping investigators get funding or on managing and overseeing projects already funded, or can cover both aspects, depending on the institution (see story on page 7). But no matter what the specialty, administrators agree that scarce money, increasing government regulation, and progressively more complex and expensive science all make the job tougher today.

Tight money means researchers must scramble harder and look at more sources to obtain funds, says Robert Smith, a pharmaceutical chemist who is now vice provost for research and dean of the graduate school at Washington State University in Pullman.

"Faculty members have to submit more proposals to get the same amount of money," says Smith. "And we're having to go to more corporations and foundations to supplement slow state and federal funding. That means more time spent enticing different groups to give money."

Seeking more private funding also complicates the contracts administrators must cope with. "There's much more involvement with industry today," says Earl Freise, a materials scientist who is director of sponsored research at the California Institute of Technology. "That means more and different agreements regarding patents and technology transfer--a new set of legal and financial questions and different contracting procedures."

Attempts to tighten the reins on research, for reasons of economics, ethics, and public safety, have created a blizzard of government regulations, on issues including employ ment discrimination as well as biohazards and radiation. That translates into an increasingly complex set of considerations to take into account when managing each project.

In fact, regulation of some areas of research is so multi-layered that administrators can find themselves struggling to comply with rules that seem to contradict each other, says Frank Tepe, an aeronautical engineer who is now interim vice president for research at the University of Cincinnati. As an example, Tepe cites the rules of accounting that govern the consortia many universities are currently forming to share the cost of high-tech research.

"The federal government wants to give the award to one institution, so we have to collect audit reports from the other institutions and determine whether they're doing anything that would make them ineligible for federal support," Tepe says. "But in most cases, the government itself is already giving the other institutions millions of dollars of research money under other programs and is already auditing these same reports. Are we supposed to hire extra internal auditors and refuse to give [other universities] sub-awards when the government is giving them money independently?"

Furthermore, Tepe and others say, the increasing technological demands in most of today's scientific fields also makes today's research more complex to manage. "Scientific research is a much more difficult and expensive managerial problem than it was eight to nine years ago," Tepe says. "You can't just have the janitor over to fix things anymore. And as scientists move up from small into mid-sized research projects, even they often don't appreciate how much longer it takes to get facilities in place, and the problems that can cause if you don't anticipate it correctly."

Though many research administrators are responsible for handling similar problems in the social sciences, humanities, and arts, most of the issues currently complicating the research process are science-related, they say. That's why many research administrators say scientists bring such valuable knowledge to the job. However, they also point out that administrators with other backgrounds, including business and finance and academic investigations in the arts and humanities, currently do the job well and that jobs can vary so much that not all require the same background. A current controversy over the best preparation for research administrators involves certification (see story on page 6).

"Most of these jobs depend so much on what you learn in the job, and not through any previous academic training," says Anthony Merritt, director of sponsored programs at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who came to his job from business. "And they vary so much from position to position. In some cases, it would seem to be a waste of a Ph.D."

Research administrators say that their profession's demands can vary widely from position to position. Nevertheless, many agree that the two major responsibilities of the job as it is defined by most institutions are brokering agreements between investigators and research sponsors and troubleshooting day-to- day problems, which can include stalled contract negotiations, paperwork logjams, or broken equipment.

To be a successful broker, says Robert Smith, Washington State University's vice provost for research and dean of the graduate school, "requires understanding the different goals and aspirations of every involved group. But you can't expect people to look on you as the Delphic oracle. You really have to hone your persuasive powers."

The negotiating function is most crucial to the job, says Cedric Chernick, a chemist who held a series of research administration posts at the University of Chicago before taking his current position as director of the Searle Scholars Program, a Chicago- based effort that supports newly appointed faculty with research interests in biology. In fact, Chernick recommends that "Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury [a negotiation manual that stresses understanding both parties' points of view and seeking solutions through which both parties gain, published by New York's Penguin Books, 2d ed., 1991] should be required reading for all present or potential grant and contract officers."

Yale University's director of grant and contract administration, Suzanne Polmar, describes her job's troubleshooting function as "a whole lot of smoothing ruffled feathers," which, she says, can take up as much as 80 percent of her day.

Aside from these two major functions, research administrators say, the job can include any or all of the following tasks and more: speaking to the press and the public about the nature and importance of academic research; prodding university administration to increase support for faculty research; keeping faculty up-to-date on funding information; formulating institutional policies on research as well as responses to proposed state and federal rules; managing negotiations with industry, including legal ramifications of patents and intellectual property rights; and, at some institutions, editing or even helping to write grant proposals.

For scientists contemplating a career move to this complex field, current research administrators advise careful consideration of what such a move will mean to one's scientific career, as well as the amount of self-education and attitude change it may involve. University of Texas at Dallas president Robert Rutford, a geologist, says scientists should be careful "not to burn their bridges right at first. Many people start down this route and change their minds, so you should keep options open."

Such caution is needed, say Rutford and others, since once a scientist embarks on a full-time administrative research career, it almost certainly means an end to doing science. "If you approach the job seriously and professionally, your [science] career is going to die," says the California Institute of Technology's Earl Freise, director of sponsored research.

And, say some scientists, even those investigators who believe that their particular administration jobs might allow them to continue their studies should consider the ethical dimensions of such a decision. "Faculty should never be able to perceive that a research administrator--a person in charge of research resources- -is also someone who's competing with them for those resources," says Washington State's Smith. "You simply shouldn't risk that. Let the research career go."

Rutford says scientists who see themselves as potential research administrators should also consider some other attitudinal changes the career demands, especially their views about what it means to succeed in a job. "If you've been very goal-oriented in the lab, you have to change your time span of accomplishment," Rutford says. "From the lab or the field, you can go home and say, `Well, today I accomplished this much, measured this much.' But as a research administrator, you go home and say, `What did I do today?' The payoff from your work isn't visible for 18 months. And even then, the immediate benefit goes to the researcher, not to you. You have to believe that helping others achieve their goals is another kind of success."--M.C.

"There are people from humanities backgrounds who do this job very well, but frankly I marvel at them," says Washington State's Smith. "Most of the day-to-day problems are science-based--human subjects in research, radiation hazards, biohazards. Someone who comes from Renaissance literature and becomes articulate enough to deal knowledgeably with all these controversial issues is a wonder."

Other administrators point out that scientists generally find themselves immersed in research by the time they are in graduate school, and that applying for their own grants is likely to give them more first-hand experience than other academics in the task of justifying large expenditures on equipment and staff.

According to several administrators, a science background also helps them feel more at ease reviewing scientific grant proposals, which often represent 90 percent or more of the research dollars an institution receives.

"Having written such proposals myself, and knowing my own science and having at least a nodding acquaintance with others, I can ask intelligent questions about the proposals I see," says Ann Stevens, a biochemist who is associate vice president for research at Emory University in Atlanta. "I realize the importance of data and how it's reported, and the ways contract and business agreements might infringe on academic freedom."

But even those who strongly advocate a science background as the best preparation for a research administration job point out that anyone who takes such a position has a lot to learn. They stress the necessity of learning how to read financial statements and appreciating the way research is conducted in nonscience disciplines.

"In dollar volume of research, science is certainly the bulk of it," says Andrew Rudczynski, a tumor immunologist who is assistant vice president for research administration at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "But it's vital to understand how much new knowledge those from the other academic disciplines create, and what they need in order to do it. You have to appreciate that obtaining $5,000 can mean doing 10 times as much good for the humanities as it could for the sciences, and you have to be aware that their contribution to knowledge isn't less important just because it costs less to obtain."

Former scientists who now work as research administrators have taken many paths to the job. Some were recruited as part-time faculty consultants by other research administrators, sometimes as a result of calling the administrator's attention to a problem they perceived.

Suzanne Polmar, a biochemist who is director of grant and contract administration at Yale University, took such a post after becoming "a one-lady expert" on funding sources because the institution at which she taught, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, at that time "required junior faculty to get grants, but didn't help them find them."

Washington State's Smith simultaneously consolidated and demonstrated his knowledge of the grants and research process by writing a book to inform graduate students about it.

Many scientists have taken formal courses and even degrees, mostly in business and law, as a means of preparing for the career. Emory's Stevens says she took "a 70-hour intensive course in patent law" to help her deal with the technology transfer issues that come up on her job. Several scientists report earning master's degrees in business administration in their early years on the job or while working in it part-time.

However, personal style and habits of thinking are still more important to being a good research administrator than any specific education or job experience, many administrators say.

According to them, the job requires a strong commitment to using common sense, enjoying tackling many tasks at once, intellectual curiosity that extends beyond one's own discipline, and an affinity for people and an openness to other points of view.

"The ideal researcher is tenacious about digging into the details of one thing," says Cincinnati's Tepe. "Maybe I just have a short attention span, but that's not my makeup. I'm a generalist who likes to have many things going on at once. That kind of mind seems to be right for being a research administrator. You've got to be interested in science, yes, but the arts and humanities, too. You have to be committed to seeing new things happen and in furthering knowledge in general. You have to be willing to become conversant with many different fields so you can have a feeling for what will be important in them."

"It's very much a service job," says Yale's Polmar. "Many folks who choose science as a career are not enough `people persons' to be entirely happy doing it. They're more inner-directed."

Polmar and others comment, jokingly, that the best way for scientists to understand what a research administrator is up against might be for them to consider themselves--and how ego- driven they can be in pressing for their own agendas.

"That's why you have to be thick-skinned and philosophical," says Washington State's Smith. "[When you're a research administrator,] half the people will think they could do your job better than you. The other half will think anyone could do it better."

Marcia Clemmitt is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.