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Who Does That?: Where Research Administration Tasks Reside at Different Institutions | Pulse

By SRAI News posted 02-22-2018 12:00 AM


Authored by:
Zoya Davis-Hamilton

Associate Vice Provost, Research Administration & Development
Tufts University

Sarah Marina
Assistant Director, Research Development
Tufts University

Zoya Davis-HamiltonSarah Marina

In this issue of the Catalyst, we revisit valuable and timeless articles.

Republished from Pulse, April 2016.

This month we wanted to learn where five common research administration tasks sit at various institutions. We were interested in task distribution between central versus departmental research administrators, as well as whether specific tasks may reside in pre- or post-award area. A brief anonymous survey was sent to the subscribers of RESADM-L listserv asking respondents where several tasks sit at their institution. These included: Who reviews the Notice of Award together with the PI for terms and conditions; which office ensures that personnel involved in the award meets training requirements; who performs periodic burn analysis for the PI; who acts as the sponsor liaison; and who keeps cost share documentation. We share our results and our thoughts in this column.

Curious about where five specific research administration tasks may reside at different institutions, we posed an anonymous survey to the subscribers to RESADM-L listserv. We presented survey respondents with five tasks, listed below, and asked who performs each at their institution:

  • review of the Notice of Award together with the PI for terms and conditions;
  • ensuring that personnel involved in the performance of the award meets training requirements;
  • performing periodic burn analysis for the PI;
  • liaison with the sponsor; and
  • keeping cost share documentation.

The survey was open between March 10th and March 24th, 2016 and collected 185 complete responses. Below, we share what we have learned from our colleagues.

Review of the Notice of Award with Principal Investigator

Upon approval of funding, a sponsor typically sends a Notice of Award (NOA) describing the award terms and conditions to the funded institution. Given that a Principal Investigator (PI) should be aware of the terms and conditions that the award imposes, many institutions have a practice of reviewing NOAs with the PI.

We learned that at 85% of respondents’ institutions this review function is performed by a central office, whether such office is pre-award (27%), post-award (14%), or combined (44%). Only ten percent of institutions maintain this task as a departmental function. Several respondents provided more details, including a varied approach where task allocation depends on the support available in each department, and on individual personalities of staff in the central offices. Several participants commented that in smaller organizations departmental and central is “the same thing”, or that in their institutions “all research administration services are centralized”, and therefore there are no departmental research administrators. While we found no uniform practice of NOA review, responses revealed that the review of terms and conditions together with the PI does occur in most organizations that responded to our survey, and that other institutional offices are pulled in for the review of “specific” and “relevant” requirements. This indicates that this task, wherever it resides, is a standard institutional research administration practice.

APR2016-Pulse1_2.pngAdherence to Training Requirements

Next, we asked which office ensures that personnel involved in the performance of the award have met training requirements, such as Financial Conflict of Interest, Human Subjects research certification, etc. Once again in respondent’s institutions this responsibility resides predominantly in central offices (67%), and is most frequently a pre-award (29%) rather than a post-award (5%) function. Comments submitted by the respondents revealed that at many institutions this task is performed by a central compliance office, such as Office of Research Integrity or Research Assurance; that institutional regulatory offices such as IRB and IACUC perform compliance checks of their own, and that some institutions have electronic systems that assist with the functions by “generating training alerts if training is needed”. The diversity of offices involved in this task indicate that it is less clearly something always defined as the work of research administration.

APR2016-Pulse2_2.pngBurn Rate Analysis

The burn rate is a rate at which awarded funds are being spent. Analysis of information pertaining to the burn rate is an important element in managing sponsored funding. Survey participants indicated that this function resides more often in departments (38% versus central 34%), and that this is definitively a post-award function (16% post-award versus 1% pre-award). The comments that we received also confirmed that research administrators view burn analysis as a post-award function, and revealed that unfortunately in many institutions “no one does this”, or “PI must do this for themselves”. This indicates that this task, which while critical is not required from a compliance standpoint, is not prioritized by many research administrators.

APR2016-Pulse3_2.pngLiaison with the Sponsor

It is often necessary during the life of the award to engage with the sponsor on matters related to the award terms, prior approval, no cost extension, and the like. Our results indicate that this task is largely centralized (85% responses) rather than departmental (10%), and is performed as a pre-award function (27%) but is also present in post-award (14%). Comments elaborated that pre-award acts as the liaison on “programmatic and compliance” matters, while post-award works with sponsor representatives on budget and fiscal matters. Once again, many organizations have combined pre- and post-award offices, and some have no departmental research administration, making this split interesting but not reflective of the majority of respondent’s institutions.


Cost Share Documentation

Committed cost share contributed to sponsored projects must be verifiable from records and appropriately documented. From the survey results we learned that at respondents’ institutions central offices once again have larger role than departments: 64% reported that such cost share documentation is retained in central offices, mostly post-award or combined, and 22% retain the information in departments. Comments further detailed that “department tracks it, and central confirms and reports it”, that sometimes cost share tracking falls on the PI, and that some institutions “just” avoid cost share. Central involvement for cost share makes sense, as this is an issue arising from individual proposals with institution-wide consequences that can be far reaching if done incorrectly.


Based on responses from our colleagues, it is evident that central offices, whether pre-award, post-award or combined, play an increasingly key role in the five selected functions reviewed. This primacy of central research administration offices may be due to the potential for many of these tasks to negatively affect the institution as a whole if done improperly, as well as the federal documentation requirements for functions like training and cost share. Tasks that are not required in this way, or seen as more departmental, such as burn rate analysis, were given less attention by central offices and in some cases not offered at all. We caution that such tasks, while not specifically required from a compliance standpoint, allow for greater compliance overall and should not be overlooked.