With Simpson Querrey about to open, research administrators struggle with grant proposal backlog

University+president+Morton+Schapiro%2C+Chicago+Mayor+Rahm+Emanuel+and+dean+of+Feinberg+School+of+Medicine+Dr.+Eric+Neilson+tour+the+Simpson+Querrey+Biomedical+Research+Center+in+January.+The+center+is+set+to+open+in+June.

Source: Northwestern Now

University president Morton Schapiro, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and dean of Feinberg School of Medicine Dr. Eric Neilson tour the Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center in January. The center is set to open in June.

Gabby Birenbaum, Campus Editor

After seven years of planning, four years of construction worth $455 million and a planned investment totaling $1 billion, Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center is set to open in June.

The new research center — a modern-looking, glass-paneled structure located downtown on the Chicago campus — will be the crown jewel for Northwestern’s treasured research enterprise. SQBRC is expected to create 2,000 permanent jobs and generate $1.5 billion in federal funding.

With sponsored research awards already totaling a record $702.1 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year, the new building is poised to push Northwestern’s Office for Research past the billion-dollar threshold.

SQBRC “provides us with a tremendous opportunity to pull together a number of talented researchers into one cohesive group,” William Kath, the center’s co-director, said in a University release in May. “This will create a whole new set of interactions that will accelerate research tremendously.”

University president Morton Schapiro expressed excitement about the building’s impending opening as well. He boasted about Northwestern’s research prowess at both of his Conversations with the President events, citing the increase in federal funding to the University as research on the Evanston and Chicago campuses has expanded in the last two decades.

For Schapiro, SQBRC will cement that legacy.

“Just think about what’s gonna come out of that building,” he told The Daily in April. “It’s just amazing.”

By pushing Northwestern into billion-dollar figures for research earnings, SQBRC will force the Office for Sponsored Research — which reviews grant applications for Northwestern faculty and submits them to federal organizations — to take on additional work sorting through grant proposals from the new and expanded labs taking residence in the center.

But a month away from the grand opening, OSR is already struggling to process the existing levels of grant application activity. A significant backlog has taken root, causing research faculty to experience frustration. With pressure mounting from senior administrators for researchers to produce papers and contribute to the research boom, the administrative backlog has inhibited their ability to participate in the University’s $700 million flagship enterprise.

Building the Enterprise

Faculty Senate research affairs committee chairman and chemistry Prof. Thomas Meade told The Daily that Northwestern’s commitment to research is, in his academic experience, unparalleled. He arrived at Northwestern in 2003 and ever since, the “explosion” of research-related investment, from facilities to professors, has changed the face of the school, he said.

“There has not been a day since I’ve arrived that there hasn’t been construction on North campus,” he said.

Northwestern’s commitment to research over the past decade has caused incredible growth. Research funding has risen 60 percent in ten years, according to the 2018 Office for Research Impact Report, which amounts to an increase of $263 million dollars. Because of all the construction Meade was referring to, the University now has 55 core research facilities.

Whether it was Silverman Hall, the Kellogg Global Hub or the near-constant expansion of the Technological Institute — all done in the last decade — the University poured funding into research, expanding the space researchers and labs occupy. More space means the volume of research increases, Meade said, and with more research comes more work for the Office for Sponsored Research.

When the University provides for enormous investment in research without subsequently ensuring the administrative infrastructure is equipped to handle expanded workloads, it’s a recipe for backlog, Meade said.

“We’re talking about the major commitment from the University,” Meade said. “It expanded all the space that we have, all these new buildings, and (grant administrators) were overwhelmed…They’re understaffed. I guess that’s the way to put it.”

The Process

When a member of the research faculty wants federal funding for a project, they must first fill out a grant — a complicated process that occurs three times a year, with three major funding cycles in February, June and October, Meade said. Faculty are required to submit their grant applications to the Office for Sponsored Research about a week in advance of federal funding deadlines, giving OSR a chance to review and submit grants.

Faculty members work with individual grant administrators, assigned by department, who troubleshoot and turn in grants to OSR. What happens next, Meade says, is a mystery.

“It’s a black box to us,” he said.

According to their website, OSR reviews proposals, assures all signatures and certifications are present and in order, verifies salary and budget calculations, reviews Northwestern’s budgetary commitments and then ensures the document is formatted correctly.

Meade said he’s seen grant applications not get sent to federal organizations in time due to typos or grammatical mistakes that OSR finds. Because the office often only has about a week to process a huge number of grant applications, which increases every year as research does, deadlines are missed and funding is not rewarded.

In his experience, Meade said his lab writes 15 to 20 grant proposals per year. The majority go unfunded. With a six- to 10-month wait between the submission of a proposal and the award of a grant, according to OSR, it’s imperative that applications are turned in on time. But since the office is backlogged, researchers are having to wait.

Issues

In addition to understaffing, Meade said a lack of proper training for grant administrators contributes to the problem. Federal government agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation change formats and submission programs often, and if grant administrators are not trained in the new systems, the process takes longer and the backlog grows.

Provost Jonathan Holloway said the need for training will impact how quickly the backlog can be fixed.

“It’s not just something (where) you raised your hand and get put into that job and know how to do it,” Holloway said. “There’s some sort of training. It’s gonna take a while to get up to speed to be expert enough to adjudicate what needs to be adjudicated.”

In addition, Meade said research faculty are not blameless. Faculty members will often turn in proposals right before the deadline, swamping OSR.

To attempt to ease that burden, OSR’s website encourages faculty to begin the process early.

“Early communication with the appropriate school and unit-level research administrators and Sponsored Research Grants Officer can significantly and positively impact proposal preparation and submission,” the website says.

Despite the effort, Meade said researchers are often writing up to the last minute.

Finally, the federal government shutdown last winter impacted the February funding cycle, Meade said, particularly for the National Science Foundation. With federal employees unable to process new grant applications, the backlog grew even larger, impacting the impending June deadline.

“Some of the backlog was related to the government shutting down,” Schapiro said. “All of a sudden it came. It was an avalanche.”

Solutions

When Meade met with the Faculty Senate research affairs committee to identify issues that needed addressing, the backlog quickly emerged as the number one subject. He met with the members of the Board of Trustees to explain the issue, and said he was able to pique their interest when he explained that the seemingly small administrative struggle could be the difference in acquiring the $300 million needed to launch Northwestern into billion dollar-research funding territory.

While the committee was working on writing a list of recommendations to the administration, Meade learned administrators had heard faculty concerns and implemented the top three points of recommendation that his committee was planning to make, addressing issues of understaffing and transparency.

“In the recent Conversations with the President events on the Chicago and Evanston campuses, we discussed the University’s intentions to continue expanding its research impact,” Holloway and Craig Johnson, NU’s senior vice president for business and finance, wrote in an April 19 email to the research community. “Sustaining a thriving ecosystem to support discovery … requires strategic investment in the administrative infrastructure that handles contracts, compliance and related research issues.”

Acknowledging the backlog, Holloway and Johnson said the University has begun taking steps to fix the problem, including adding new full-time positions in the OSR, reprioritizing existing financial resources to hire temporary staff, who began in April, to eliminate the backlog and committing to posting monthly updates on OSR’s progress in the spirit of transparency.

Holloway also told The Daily that a team of attorneys was brought in to clean out the backlog. He expects the office to be back on track by July.

Schapiro said comments from faculty about the problem during Conversations with the President brought the issue to his attention. With Simpson Querrey on the horizon, he said he knew action needed to be taken immediately.

“There are all kinds of corollary investments one has to make,” he said. “As I said to that scientist (at Conversations), ‘I don’t want you spending all your time on grant administration. I want you in the lab changing the world.’”

Holloway said the University’s recent budget deficit made finding the resources “tricky,” but the investment was necessary.

Considering the deficit, Meade was “shocked” administrators acted so swiftly.

“This is one of those surprising but also encouraging moments where they responded quickly,” he said. “They summed up three of the major recommendations in this note from the provost, and we’re delighted so far.”

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the dean of the Feinberg School of Medicine as Lewis Landsberg. His name is Dr. Eric Neilson. The Daily regrets the error.

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