It takes a “village” to manage a sponsored project, especially a very large award. The scientific team executes the aims of the research. The department level research administration staff assists with the administration of the award and the business administration support team executes the financial administration of the expenditures of salary and supplies. Central offices review expenditures, consult on policies and procedures, execute subcontracts and administer communications with funding agencies. It takes a village to manage an award, and every person that is involved sees a part of the process.
The principal investigator and the research administrator focus on the administration of the award, as well as helping the PI focus on the research aims, which is a tall task. The PI’s job is to look at the elephant in the picture above as a whole – which is a very difficult job, considering the nature of university bureaucracies, and the complexity of the research enterprise – on top of actually conducting research itself. Research administrators do our best to make it easier.
Challenges that may occur in this process:
1. Type of award mechanism – administering an R01 has different challenges than a P60. A T32 has different challenges than a U54. Is this a new mechanism? Are there special rules? And working with the NIH is different than working with the NSF, DOE or DOD.
2. Structure of the award – are there five subcontractors with two second tier subcontracts and three consultants? How are the aims of the award being met across sites, and how is this work being tracked? (Or 50 sites with their own subcontracting and consulting authority?)
3. Experience – the experience of the PI, the research administration team, the project team and the agency with the award itself is important. These are all factors that help to determine how the award will be managed.
4. Communication – managing regular communication with PI’s, their project teams and subcontracting sites is key to keeping an award on track, especially when considering the management of larger awards. Administrators of center, institute and consortium grants know that the only way to keep milestone reporting and evaluation mechanisms on track is to have a meeting structure that supports providing information to the award PI. It works for every award, regardless of the size.
Tips for Building Teamwork to Manage Sponsored Projects
- Start off on the right foot. Set up meetings with your PI on a regular basis and provide agendas and follow up notes. Understand how he/she likes to receive information. Communicate regularly between meetings and anticipate the next meeting agenda. Provide financials at each meeting.
- Understand what keeps your PI up at night. Manage the agenda and keep ahead of deadlines based on PI priorities, award milestones, financials and institutional/agency guidelines.
- Navigate the University bureaucracy – in a majority of cases, PI’s do not need to interact with internal systems and processes to implement research administration or financial procedures. That’s what we can do, to ensure that they are able to focus on research.
- Assist your PI in managing subcontractor work. Schedule regular meetings with site administrative contacts and review all invoices and backup regularly with your PI. Maintain proactive and positive relationships with research partners to ensure research moves forward in a compliant manner.
- Maintain transparency. If you make a mistake, be honest about it. Tell the PI that you’ve fixed it and how you’ve learned from the problem (so it won’t happen again). Honesty and integrity builds trust.
- Adjust and remain open for feedback.There’s always a time when something needs to be tweaked, or improved. It’s not personal, it’s about the work. If we’re going to be focused on advancing science, and we know that research and the way it’s conducted is always evolving – we have to evolve with it. So when your PI says he needs you change the way you work with him, it’s good feedback, because you can increase your effectiveness.
- Keep in touch with your internal customers. As a project becomes complicated or changes, be sure to update your grants and contracts officer or grants accounting office so your internal team members are up to date with administrative changes.
- Produce regular reports for your PI. This is the hardest one of all, but its probably the most important, because its the most helpful for being able to evaluate and check your understanding of the project versus the PI’s understanding. Given that your PI is so busy, may often find it hard to focus on financials, finding a way to drill down on aspects of the project on a monthly or every other month basis will be important.
Applying for, and closing out a sponsored project takes a relatively short amount of time – the quality time we spend with an award is how we manage it once it’s up and running, before we get to the last 90 days of each year, and the final 90 days of the award. It takes a team to do it well – and knowing your role as a research administrator will help you keep your awards on track!