Federal, corporate and other sponsored grant funding allows our nation’s researchers to fuel medical breakthroughs and drive advances in technologic innovation. As such, academic research is a major reason the United States remains a leader in medicine and biotechnology.
Yet it’s never been a more challenging time for research institutions looking to support their efforts with grant-sponsored funding. Two reasons associated with these challenges are: availability of funding and management of these funds.
Many Federal funding agencies, including the National Institute of Health, have been on a roller-coaster ride when it comes to availability of research funds. A recent study from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (PDF) shows federal funding for research has remained flat for more than a decade, and when adjusted for inflation, funding has actually decreased. Corporate and other sources of grant funding have also fluctuated.
The administrative environment within research organizations is also a challenge as institutions face issues of ever increasing complexity associated with rules and regulations for these funds. Most research-focused colleges, universities, hospitals, research centers and other organizations face an increasing administrative burden when it comes to managing grant funding applications, grant accounting and administration.
An Administrative Burden
Typically, a University’s Office of Sponsored Research operates with limited staff resources, yet is taxed with an overwhelming workload when it comes to grant management activities. A handful of staff is often responsible for pre- and post-award administration, effort certification, tracking detailed budget, encumbrance, and expenditure transactions, reporting and meeting federal mandates.
Those responsible for grants administration are often mired in duplicate data entry, manual handling of files and documentation, silos of spreadsheets and other fragmented systems.
The National Science Board (NSB, Board) Task Force on Administrative Burdens (PDF) offers findings that reinforce these issues. According to the study, the most frequently reported grant management areas associated with high administrative workload include the following:
- financial management
- grant proposal process
- progress, other outcome reporting
- human subjects research reporting
- institutional review boards (IRBs)
- time and effort reporting
- documentation related to research involving animals
- personnel management
In Search of a Better Way
Given these pressures, today’s research office seeks to improve the grant management process, but is challenged to begin the effort.
To address these limitations, smart organizations start by looking at these key areas which signal an inefficient grant management process. With each trouble area, we’ve included an associated best practice to address the challenges.
1. Bottlenecks with manual, redundant methods. Be on the look-out for “home made” reports, spreadsheets and file storage methods. It’s a red flag when each staff member has their own system in place for filing and organizing grant documents. It’s a waste of resources when the team handles the same spreadsheets, Word documents, and other source materials numerous times, checking for inaccuracies, proofreading and managing revisions. Each staff person should not be relying on their own methods to track deadlines, calendar and to-do lists.
As a best practice, organizations are wise to seek out automated document storage. By automating document management, users can easily store and manage all documents digitally. Multiple documents, such as the original proposal, the notice of award, funding authority notifications, budget forms, routing sheets, agency progress and financial reports can be stored for each grant or proposal. Once stored, they can be easily accessed and displayed without any manual intervention.
2. Challenges regarding compliance with documenting personnel expenses. When a research institution’s sponsored funding comes from the federal government, it follows that the institution must keep up with changing reporting requirements. Organizations may struggle with this component as it can be overly time-consuming to track use of funds, especially when it comes to federal grants or highly regulated sectors.
To counter compliance issues such as this, an automated Effort Reporting System offers benefits such as single source data retention, ease of access/use by administrators and certifiers and automated reporting. These benefits, as well as the benefit of electronic record storage, provides the basis for financial and compliance management and audit support. When institutions automate effort certification and reporting, they reduce the time it takes to meet federal time and effort certification and reporting mandates.
3. Communication and collaboration work-arounds: It’s tricky when there are multiple people involved in the management of grants. Whether it’s the development office, grant office or research staff, it can be hard to manage approval sign-offs and other activities across all involved stakeholders. It also becomes a challenge to develop comprehensive reports that provide data regarding your grant profile that meet all the different needs of these varying offices. Complicating this issue further, many GL systems are fiscal year based, making reporting associated with grant activity difficult and cumbersome.
As a best practice, automating grants management gives users instant access to information at any time through the grant lifecycle. Many organizations benefit from easy to use web-based interfaces that include dashboards, display screens and reports. Many solutions offer user permissions via an expandable folder system that streamlines the organization of proposals and awards according to user defined filters. This reduces the burden when the system automatically sorts criteria such as status, investigator, funding agency, organizational unit, and more. Alerts and e-mail reminders provide notification of pending activities or reporting deadlines, instead of relying on manual methods to accomplish these tasks.
Grants Management Best Practices
As we note, outdated or manually-intensive grants administration creates bottlenecks and wasted effort. An over-reliance on physical files and highly manual business processes waste time, resources and frustrate the entire team.
When grant management best practices are used effectively, teams are better able to organize and access essential information for both day-to-day management and institution-wide reporting, as well as meeting requirements placed by funding agencies.