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In my opinion

Administration – much maligned but very necessary

Think before you cut!


There is a “right” amount of administration in every organization that provides the appropriate level of support for the core mission of the business. This maxim is true of the administration of research.

At a university, the right level ensures that we comply with regulations and terms of grants and that friction-free systems for managing applications and grants are in place.  At the funding agencies, the right level ensures well-run programs, workable policies and terms, and excellent adjudication processes and support through the application process. In administration, the quality and effectiveness of the people involved add value.

Many people believe that research administration has grown too big, but several factors are driving the growth of administration:

  • Research programs and funding programs are growing. Canada has the highest per-capita funded university- and college-based research among the G8 countries. As an example, the University of British Columbia last year secured nearly $530 million from 1,000 sources of funding. Most sources have their own terms that the institution must comply with.
  • The nature of funding programs has changed dramatically. Individual research grants have given way to more team-based grants, which are harder to support and require specialized administration. Large infrastructure grants, more government-funded research chair programs, and theme-targeted funds have also changed the landscape.
  • The federal government has put an emphasis on “capturing the economic benefit” and mo-bilizing knowledge from research. Universities and colleges have responded by setting up expensive commercialization, knowledge mo-bilization and industry partnership operations staffed with highly trained professionals.
  • Higher thresholds of compliance are now required. Responding to societal expectations, Canada’s tri-agencies created a certification system where the use of biohazards, animals or human subjects must be reviewed by peer committees supported by research administrators. For U.S. funds, compliance is even more demanding, and the U.S. now audits Canadian recipients of U.S. research funding.

Research administration is the oil in the research machine. Too much or too little makes the engine run badly. However, university administrations aren’t the only kind of oil. The funding agencies also have administrative staff managing grants competitions, helping researchers with their submissions, managing the electronic upload systems and supporting peer adjudication processes. The administration at the university and the funding agency is the critical interface that connects researchers to their research funds. If this interface works poorly, there’s a decline in research productivity, to say nothing of lost funding opportunities.

In a period of global fiscal restraint, there’s a tendency to want to cut administrative staff. But before we drain too much oil from the research machine we need to think about how we value the administrative support in myriad ways, from managing compliance requirements and financial accountabilities to helping to upload grant proposals and CVs.

At a recent conference I attended, it was estimated that the average U.S. researcher spends half of their day carrying out compliance and research administration tasks. I have a strong sense that this relentless downloading of more administrative tasks is overburdening our researchers, directly eroding research productivity.

What is the right amount of administrative capacity – thus efficiency – to keep the engine running at top speed? To understand this, we will need to put in place new systems that can monitor and report on key performance indicators (developed by consensus) of effective research administrative capacity in universities and funding agencies.

As well, we need to develop state-of-the-art business systems and make them widely available so that we become as efficient as possible, and then to monitor that efficiency. We also need to develop seamless electronic links between university and funding agency systems to ensure the least possible friction at their interface – something that the international Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information is seeking to facilitate.

Finally, we must remember that research is still a contact sport where people communicate with people as well as machines and that success is defined by excellent research.

Martin Kirk is president of the Canadian Association of University Research Administrators and director of the office of research services at the University of British Columbia.


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  1. Tamsin Miley / March 19, 2013 at 13:09

    This is a timely reminder that cutting administration can be counter-productive. I would like to add that avoiding legal review because of delay or costs can be, too.

    In addition to the drivers identified above, I see growing signs of litigiousness in the research arena. Corporate research partners, students and researchers have all been in court opposite universities over research arrangements gone wrong. The disputes that get to court are only those where settlement could not be reached, but the others (although we seldom read about them) are often time-consuming and expensive to resolve. Disputes are also detrimental to an institution’s credibility and to the formation of new research partnerships.

    Basic legal review need not be expensive and can avert many disputes that might otherwise arise. It also helps to inculcate sound contracting practices and awareness of legal issues among research administrators and researchers.

  2. Stephen Price / March 20, 2013 at 16:43

    Good thoughts on balancing the need for administration. I’d add that there is also the tendency to clump ‘administration’ as a generic and generally bad thing.

    On the research services side, I worked across the hall from one of our grant support staff for a few years. She spent many hours with investigators honing their proposals. This is often an important step in effectively communicating the research. But that help on a balance sheet looks like administrative bloat.

    On the student affairs side where I work, again the ‘administration’ category often falls into an unhelpful dichotomy of “money spent on teaching and research faculty” vs. “money not spent on teaching and research faculty”. The stats indicate that universities are spending a greater share of dollars on non-instructional staff. While this is something to pay attention to, all too often the examination of the issue stops at that stat: I have seen faculty assert that more non-instructional staff spending as a proportion of all spending is inherently bad. The suggestion is that this spending is non-productive. This isn’t necessarily the case when that category includes advisors, student engagement staff, disability support staff etc.

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