Amidst backlog woes, research office increases staff, though concerns remain


Source: Feinberg School of Medicine

The Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center, a new Northwestern facility opening in June. With the addition of SQBRC, the Office for Sponsored Research’s workload will only grow.

Gabby Birenbaum, Campus Editor

In April, Provost Jonathan Holloway and Craig Johnson, senior vice president for business and finance, responded to a growing chorus of concerns from faculty about a research backlog taking place in Northwestern’s Office for Sponsored Research. Feeling pressured by the University to produce research and contribute to a nearly $1 billion enterprise, faculty did not feel supported by the length of the administrative process for awarding grants and frustrated by their lack of information in explaining the delays.

Hearing these struggles, the pair committed to increased staffing and transparency, while promising to bring a team of outside temporary staff to process the existing backlog. Associate vice president for research Rex Chisholm, who oversees OSR, said those promises have been met.

All of the new positions that the office received permission from central administration to hire in April have been filled, and the interview process to fill the position of Executive Director, which has been empty since September, is well underway. External consultants are going through the grants award contracts and subcontracts that had been held up in administrative back-and-forth.

“We’re doing a pretty timely turnaround time in terms of setting up awards, and we’re really focused on making progress,” Chisholm said. “The response from central administration has been terrific.”

Progress is occurring, though it may be fleeting.

The impending opening of Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center and further expansion of the research enterprise will require even greater staffing demands. But a former employee in the Office for Sponsored Research, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a culture of grants officers being overworked and underpaid contributed to heightened tensions in the office and the backlog itself.

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Both Chisholm and the former employee said the backlog occurs in the process of grant awarding rather than grant proposal submission. There is an “absolute rule” that all grant proposals submitted on time to OSR will be submitted to the awarding institution — often a governmental body — on time.

Poor training of grants officers and understaffing mean that even though all proposals are submitted on time, problems arise during the grant awarding stage if a proposal is accepted, the former employee said. OSR employees typically review salaries, indirect cost rates, legal concerns and accordance with Northwestern policies and guidelines when going over a grant submission, but the lack of adequate staffing when the former employee was there meant there was often not enough time to thoroughly review applications.

If that application were accepted, there would be even more work for the officers in handling details when drafting contracts and subcontracts, particularly if the grant was awarded to a collaborative team involving another University or foundation, with their own policies and guidelines to consider. With grant administration positions being filled internally, their lack of replacement meant there was not enough staff to handle contract and subcontract activities, and the back-and-forth between Northwestern and partnering groups could take months, with each new iteration of the contract requiring a signature from higher-ups.

“The department (was) short-staffed, so that meant that departments suddenly didn’t have a grant officer,” the former OSR employee said. “Departments would be like, ‘Why isn’t it set up yet?’ And other universities would be like, ‘Why haven’t you sent back this signed agreement yet?’ That’s where it would get very, very frustrating, and that’s where the biggest problem was.”

Chisholm agreed that the process of reworking budgets, guidelines and other concerns in contractual and sub-contractual negotiations with other universities or groups is where delays occurred, and he believes the hiring of new faculty can bridge that gap.

The growth of the research enterprise was not supplemented with additional staff until this year, he said. While the amount of awards has increased 4 to 5 percent yearly, there’s only been a 2 percent increase in grant administration staff over the last decade — a discrepancy that yielded noticeable results for the faculty responsible for the growth.

“The faculty is very collaborative in their increasing the number of outgoing subcontracts, and we’ve done that up until just about two months ago with no increasing staff at all,” Chisholm said. “The workload’s going up, staffing is not quite keeping up with that workload, and the consequence of that is, stuff just takes longer. It’s that simple.”

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While understaffing is significant, it was not the only issue, the former employee said. Chisholm said simply obtaining a signature from a director or assistant director is not where the problem lies, especially because OSR has implemented a new electronic signature system as a result of a quality improvement process. But the former employee said waiting on a signature when they worked there took an inordinate amount of time, because those with signing authority would overview contracts in an order that did not take time sensitivity into account and would under-prioritize specific departments or officers.

A grants officer would end up stuck in the middle with all of the blame, the former employee said.

“She’s dealing with the person signing on our end, and she’s dealing with this other institution, waiting to sign on their end, and then she’s in the middle of the (faculty member’s) department saying, ‘Hey, where the hell is my award? ‘What are you people doing in OSR? Why haven’t you done this yet?’” the source said. “Anything that we say sounds like an excuse, and it makes the grants officer look bad, but 95 times out of 100, it’s not the grants officer. It’s our directors or the other institution who’s dropping the ball.”

In addition, the former employee said the training environment was not conducive to success — in their experience, employees would be given binders with online modules to complete, unable to shadow more senior employees, and then being forced to “sink or swim” when busy proposal or awards seasons came along, contributing to the lengthy contracting and subcontracting period.

While Chisholm said online modules are utilized, the training is done in an apprenticeship model in which hands-on experience is emphasized. In April, Holloway said sufficient training, using the apprenticeship model Chisholm described, will be implemented for new hires.

“The challenge is it’s not just something (where) you raise your hand and get put into that job and know how to do it,” Holloway said. “Training is going to take awhile to get up to speed to be expert enough to adjudicate what needs to be adjudicated.”

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Employees of OSR often stayed until 7 p.m. catching up on work but would be reprimanded for taking a lunch break over an hour, the former employee said. Both pay and office morale were low. In the former employee’s final year at OSR, the merit raise pool was 2 percent, Chisholm said.

“The raises were dismal last year,” the source said. “So we’re watching all of these big construction projects come up, all over the University, and then we’re hearing the merit raises are gonna be between 1 and 3 percent — that’s not a merit raise. That’s not even cost of living.”

Chisholm said he knows how his employees are “overworked” and that they stay late to serve the faculty. Merit raise pools have been higher in the past Chisholm said, adding the University’s budget deficit is “probably a contributing factor” to the smaller pool.

Ultimately, the stress of what the former employee called a “toxic work environment” without the pay or appreciation to make it worth it was too much for them, and they chose to leave.

Chisholm said the implementation of the central administration’s solutions has been valuable to fixing the backlog and improving the office’s functionality — for now. But the future central administrators are building will require further investment in “boots on the ground.”

“It’s enough to help us get to where we need to be today, but we’ll need some additional growth as there’s continued growth in awards and proposals,” Chisholm said. “As that continues, we’re going to need additional staff next year and the year after. Any business you think of, if you’re in growth mode, you need more employees to help get the work done.”

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