Dr. Stefania Fatone is an investigator at Northwestern University. She’s a perfect example of the up and coming investigators at Northwestern that are working hard on their science, publishing, and looking toward her next round of funding. Her work focuses on developing a customized prosthetic or orthotic device for individual patients based on a number of factors she’s identified in her research, to meet the needs of their particular condition or level of ability. Her science is fascinating – and it’s a pleasure to be on the team that’s assisting her to advance her work. Dr. Fatone is my boss.
So is Dr. Steven Gard, Dr. Konrad Kording, Dr. Thomas Schnitzer, Dr. Allen Heinemann, Dr. Keith Gordon, Dr. Rosemary King, Dr. Yeongchi Wu, Matthew Major and Chris Robinson. These are just some of the 126 investigators I work for at Northwestern.
An Investigator-Focused Accountability Model
1. Investigators generate the scientific ideas that drive research funding. When we forget this, and create systems that take investigators away from their primary role, this inhibits them from being successful in managing and obtaining awards. (Current studies show that investigators in a variety of roles spend a third to a half of their time doing routine paperwork!) While investigators should know how to manage their grants and negotiate university policy, they are not required and should not be held accountable for managing the institutional blizzard of electronic and paper documentation that is required to do so to maintain compliance.
2. Investigators often have multiple roles, which are highly valued by the institution. Investigators teach, conduct research and care for patients. For a medical school – these individuals are central to meeting the mission of the institution. In addition, when they are able to meet their clinical targets, maintain their research commitments and teach students, institutions earn revenue from patients, tuition from students and facilities and administration revenue from research grants – enabling them to afford to continue to meet their mission (and pay staff salaries).
3. Managing research, teaching and clinical responsibilities is difficult. Investigators need to make sure that their clinical commitments are managed in line with their research grants, and that takes knowledge and skill – something an investigator shouldn’t have to worry about alone as their career advances and a research administrator tracks with them.
4. Research projects are more complicated as collaboration is now the norm. Managing an investigator’s effort and salary is now a full time job, which requires monthly check ins and reconciliation with effort reporting. Research administrators are best suited to assist PIs as we are closer to their activities and can assist with a fuller knowledge of their research aims and other commitments.
5. Funding mechanisms are more complicated, and sponsors require more reporting and accountability from recipients of sponsored research funding. Yes, it’s true – the award is made to the institution – but the investigator is the named recipient of the award. He or she is required to know the terms of the award, follow all the rules and requirements and meet the stated aims in order to use the funds and remain eligible for the institution to receive future funding on his or her behalf. If I am protecting and serving the investigator – I am going to ensure the institution’s ability to receive future research funding as well. We take on the burden and keep the scientist informed of this information as their project progresses.
To sum it all up – investigators put the “research” in research administrator. Increasing the ability for investigators to focus on their research in a compliant, efficient and cost-effective framework, is what we do best. I love working with my colleagues in central offices and departments, but ultimately, what we’re all doing is coming together to develop a network to ensure our investigators and their research staff and students have the resources they need to succeed.
So I know what you’re thinking – we don’t work for (on behalf) universities? You bet we do! You’ve heard the saying: “if momma ain’t happy, aint’ nobody happy?” The same is true here. If our investigators aren’t working – research doesn’t happen. We address our institutional needs when we address our investigator’s ability to conduct research under all federal, state and university guidelines. We facilitate the work of creative and intelligent people, within bureaucratic and financial structures, while meeting the needs of both.
It’s a fine line to walk, and a difficult one at times. But I, for one, wouldn’t trade this job and all my bosses, for anything.