New service helps faculty members get — and keep — sponsored awards

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Joanne Bentley and her unit will work with faculty to get and keep grants.

A year ago, with a vacant assistant administrator position, the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) experienced a bit of a dilemma. How was the department going to push out more than 50 new grant and fellowship proposals without the usual staff support?

Rather than rush to fill the empty position - spending weeks interviewing, hiring and training a new staff member - the department decided to take a chance. They had been approached about a new initiative called Faculty Research Management Services (FRMS), a unit charged with doing exactly what the department needed. There was one caveat:  It was still in “pilot” mode and refining its services. They decided to try FRMS and, they say, have not regretted it for a minute.

“If you wish to stress-test a new grants application and management system - then MCDB is your department,” says Ron Breaker, chair of MCDB. “In a sense, our activities throughout the granting cycle never cease, and yet the cycle spikes in activity during times when the NIH [National Institutes of Health] deadlines draw near. Our recent change in grants ‘pre-award’ work assignments has gone very well so far, and the ability to draw on the help of other grants experts when activities spike is a bonus.”

“Working in partnership with FRMS, all of the proposals were filed by the various deadlines,” adds Bob Henry, MCDB business manager. “It was a very positive experience.”

Now, almost a year later, the department is nearing another peak season for proposal development. However, this time, FRMS has officially “launched” with a dedicated staff, management structure and process.

“We estimate there will be approximately 30 [new] proposals for MCDB with the upcoming deadlines,” says Henry. “They will all be managed through FRMS. We don’t expect the service level to change at all [now that the unit has launched]. Service should only improve as FRMS is fully staffed over the next several months. The bottom line is all grant proposals need to be processed and filed on a timely basis - so that PIs [principal investigators] and the University can maximize the potential funding for research activities. FRMS has been a valuable partner with MCDB and the partnership has worked well.”

FRMS officially opened its doors in May for Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) departments seeking assistance with either the pre-award or post-award grant process. With its new structure in place, FRMS is ready to broaden its client-base to the FAS community needing resources for grants and contracts management. In addition to MCDB, the unit’s other major clients include the Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), Astronomy and Chemistry and Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. The Department of Physics is scheduled to transition next month.

Pre-award services include grant eligibility assessment, proposal development, budget development and document preparation. Post-award services include review of financial portfolio, monthly financial review and reporting, entering Office of Finance & Administration budgets, effort reporting support and financial close-outs. FRMS also is a service available for non-academic departments to apply for extramural funding.

According to Brian Rebeschi, senior director of Business Operations for FAS and Academic Services, the beauty of FRMS is that it provides departments “burst capacity” during peak seasons of grants.

“While the cycle of grants may seem like peaks and valleys at a departmental level, at the University level, it’s more like gentle waves,” says Rebeschi, who has led much of the FRMS design process. “During peak times, departments are busy getting grants out the door. We have already seen that FRMS can provide departments with subject matter expertise that they wouldn’t have otherwise. If you look at the portfolio of sponsored awards across the University, there is enough variability at the department level that FRMS can shift resources to meet the demands of various departments dealing with different agencies and requirements.”

The origins of FRMS

Joanne Bentley knows the business of grants. An administrator for the Department of Chemistry for 26 years, Bentley has spent much of her career supporting the needs of faculty members and has gained considerable insight into the nuances and expectations of sponsored research administration.

In 2005, the Office of the Provost approached Bentley and associate administrator Jacky Fields to expand their faculty support outside of chemistry- starting with EEB and astronomy. Eventually, their client list grew steadily, including federal proposals for the Yale Peabody Museum, non-academic units such as Emergency Management and Digital Dissemination and client referrals from Grant and Contract Administration (GCA). Crossing the departmental boundaries, both Bentley and Fields wanted to ensure that physical proximity would not be a barrier in maintaining the relationship with each faculty member.

“When you’re getting a proposal out the door, all other things take a backseat,” says Bentley.

A year later, Bentley was part of several University-wide initiatives to tighten and re-envision the policies, procedures and the administration of grants. In the wake of the federal investigation of Yale’s grant compliance procedures, the “100-day plan” was developed to identify next steps for systematic enhancements. As a result, improvements were made in the cost transfer process, SciQuest and effort reporting. In 2008, the Office of Research Administration (ORA) shifted focus of its departments (i.e. GCA and Grants and Contract Financial Administration) towards improving and standardizing the administration of sponsored research, especially through new technology - InfoEd’s Integrated Research Enterprise System which provides conflict of interest, proposal tracking and proposal management modules.

Now, FRMS represents the next phase of this evolution. At the center of the services are dedicated staff members who have developed expertise in the gamut of sponsored research administration - from proposal develop to compliance with University and federal policies. Tasked by Vice President Shauna King to bring FRMS to fruition as another type of shared services, the team will be led by Rebeschi and Bentley, who have spent months defining and formalizing the new unit.

“Many homegrown approaches to managing grants and contracts have developed over time, sometimes inconsistently,” explains Bentley. “We’re really raising the expertise of those who support faculty and staff competing to get money. The merit of the science should not suffer from any potential mismanagement of the process that might lead to jeopardizing an award. We’ll help with a more consistent interpretation of internal policies, so there’s less misunderstanding. We aim to help faculty understand the many implications of the funding source, indirect cost rate, cost sharing and effort.”

It’s all about the relationship

According to both Rebeschi and Bentley, the success of this unit depends on its ability to build relationships.

“Each grant is unique,” says Bentley. “So this service has to be a direct one-on-one service for the benefit of each individual PI. The application process can be confusing and overwhelming for those without current support.”

“The leadership of this department has a lot of departmental Yale experience,” Rebeshi explains. “Joanne’s been here 26 years. I’ve been here 23 years. Hannah Carroll and Jacky Fields, associate directors for FRMS, have more than 40 years of combined Yale experience between them. They understand what faculty expect and need from their own experience.”

Bentley notes that this concept of shared services is a topic many research administrator colleagues from other universities are exploring.  In this regard, Yale is leading the charge with its chosen method. By creating pre-award and post-award teams with dedicated resources that work in close partnership with each other, both activities can happen concurrently. FRMS post-award and compliance reporting are not impinged by the concentrated work needed for pre-award proposal development, as they might be in an individual department. Now, the person working on the applications does not need to be the same person focused on post-award obligations and reporting.

Additionally, in working with a variety of agencies, FRMS staff will have exposure to a broader range of sponsors that a single department perhaps may not. Once when asked if her group has experience with DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], Bentley was pleased to confirm that they did.

“When you support multiple departments, you’re also supporting a broader mix of agencies,” she says. “In the current funding environment, faculty may now have to seek support from less traditional or unfamiliar sources. We’ve seen federal funding both shrink and shift to new programs. We are dedicated to keeping up with these changes by providing the needed expertise.”

Breaker agrees. “Faculty in MCDB access funding from many different agencies and organizations ranging from the more traditional government (NIH, National Science Foundation) and philanthropic institutions (Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Gates Foundation) to the more non-traditional (Army, DARPA). The faculty members are greatly helped by a seamless process for grant applications, so that we can focus our energies on the science and education missions of the University.”

As FRMS pushes through a heavy season of NIH grants, the unit will continue to expand its FAS client list now, with an eye on expanding support throughout the University in the future.

To learn more about FRMS, contact Joanne Bentley at joanne.bentley@yale.edu.

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