Preliminary insights from our 2018 national meeting research

Chief research officers (CROs) share growing concerns about securing the future of the research enterprise. Changes in the federal funding landscape have led many institutions to diversify their funding portfolios and pursue alternative sources of funding from corporations or mission-driven federal agencies. As they do so, they face new operational challenges and burdens ranging from publication restrictions to security investments to reporting requirements.

At the same time, we’ve seen several concerning proposals from the Trump administration. The most alarming was the proposed 10% cap on facilities and administrative (F&A) costs for grants awarded by at the NIH. These realities have intensified pressures on CROs as well as faculty who must adapt to an increasingly competitive environment. Together, these challenges have significant implications for the long-term health and growth of research universities.

This year’s national meeting will provide tactical approaches to address these challenges to the future of research growth. In particular, we will focus on the implications of research policy shifts and changing funding sources, the looming threat of a facilities and administrative (F&A) rate cap, and improving faculty research development.

Ahead of the meeting series, we wanted to share two early findings from our research.

1. Inconsistent terminology perpetuates stakeholder confusion about F&A

Although CROs staved off the proposed 10% cap on F&A in 2017, they still haven’t optimized their external communication efforts—in fact, they haven’t even agreed on what to call it. We’ve heard a range of terms, including “overhead,” “indirect cost recovery,” “F&A reimbursement,” “F&A funding,” and “research operating costs.” Each of these has pros and cons, which often relate to differing institutional priorities and pressures.

While most CROs agree “overhead” and “indirect cost recovery” aren’t ideal since they fuel the misperception that F&A costs are not directly associated with research, they still frequently come up in conversations. Some CROs have also told us that “reimbursement” terminology resonates with federal policymakers but causes headaches with state legislators since they think any “reimbursement” should be returned to the state.

As a result, many institutions have opted to use a generic alternative: F&A funding. Yet this term is so vague and ill-defined that it may perpetuate a lack of transparency and understanding. Others have advocated for relabeling F&A as “research operating costs,” but such a dramatic change could undermine progress we’ve already made in educating stakeholders.

Ultimately, this inconsistency—not to mention the continued use of more problematic terms—further fuels stakeholder misperceptions. Given the complexity and importance of F&A, we can’t afford for stakeholders to be confused by inaccurate or unclear terminology.

2. Faculty development focuses on teaching and service, but stops short of adequately supporting research

CROs are tasked with growing the research enterprise. But to do so, they’ll need faculty members to secure more funding. While most universities offer many faculty development opportunities, few are offering the holistic research career development initiatives needed to secure the future of university research growth. As federal funding remains volatile and portfolios diversify, it is critical that CROs improve efforts to help get (and keep) faculty research-active.

For example, CROs need to move beyond helping faculty develop basic grant writing skills through one-off workshops. Instead, they should invest in more intensive, longer term programs focused on specific award types and funding sources. This is critical for helping faculty successfully pursue more funding from mission-driven federal agencies, like the Department of Defense, and alternative funding sources, such as industry and philanthropic donors.

We will offer strategies to better communicate about F&A, get (and keep) faculty research-active, and much more as part of this year’s national meeting.

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2018 University Research Forum National Meeting

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