The U. of I. is releasing a new online portal for researchers at its three campuses, that is intended to reduce the burden of administering grants and allow them to spend more time focusing on academic inquiry.
The "myResearch" portal is part of the Systemwide Tools for the Administration of Research and Training (START), a long-range initiative led by the vice chancellors for research of the Urbana and Chicago campuses - Peter Schiffer and Mitra Dutta, respectively - and Lynn Pardie, the Springfield campus vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost.
The myResearch portal is a tool that captures and displays sponsored project data directly for investigators. That information, including proposal submission data, award negotiation status, financial data and other information pertinent to a researcher's project, was previously only available to select administrators or through paper reports.
"In the past, we've had all of these administrative tools built for everyone in the grant process, except the principal investigator," said David Richardson, an associate vice chancellor for research who is the director of the Office of Sponsored Programs and Research Administration in Urbana. "Most times, the investigators don't even have access to the data as it's making its way through the approval or negotiation process."
"START myResearch" changes that.
"Anybody who needs the information ... it's there 24 hours a day," said Jan Novakofski, an Urbana campus professor of animal sciences and of nutritional sciences. "It's like being able to manage your own checkbook and it's accessible with the click of a button. Before, it was kind of like entering a black hole - you didn't quite know where you'd end up."
The portal lists all of an investigator's projects and shows the status of each, searchable by sponsor, date, role or any other project-related factor. An investigator can review up-to-date financial information and even non-funded applications.
"With the old system, you could spend a lot of time running around getting things in order," said Novakofski, who also is an associate vice chancellor for research for compliance. "And it's not creative time, in the sense that you're making the next breakthrough."
But with the myResearch portal, "the goal is to reduce the number of places one has to go - you just log in with your NetID and password," Novakofski said. "The system adds ease and functionality, and there will be an increase in data fidelity. It also helps researchers manage the people who are working for them. In the end, it creates a more efficient, safer and compliant process."
Richardson agreed. "It's real-time data for the investigator who wants to be informed," he said. "In the past, investigators would have had to ask multiple people in their department or central offices about the status of an application; now, if they want to know something right away, all they have to do is log in to the portal."
While the myResearch portal is the first START tool, the ultimate aim of the project is to reduce the burden of administering sponsored projects, from application to closeout. A recent national study of the grant application process showed that researchers on average spend more than 40 percent of their time on grant administrative functions. That adds up for a premier research institution such as the U. of I., where annually more than 5,000 proposals for $700 million in grant funding are submitted.
"One of my priorities as vice chancellor for research is making sure that our researchers have the right support in place, administratively, to allow them to focus on their research problems," Schiffer said. "Our office has been placing a special emphasis on providing better IT infrastructure - improving the systems that underlie research administration so researchers spend less time on administrative tasks - and the START myResearch project is a big step forward in our planned improvements and services."
Several different research support themes will be rolled out through 2016, including tools to manage conflict of interest (which will be offered first); proposal submission and award negotiation; Institutional Review Board; and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.
The new systems will use open-source software to encourage collaboration and standardization. The project also will feature options to provide advanced training for support staff members, messages promoting lab safety and even grant opportunities.
The START system is based, in part, on recommendations of the University Senates Conference's Pre and Post Award Task Force report, which last year, at the direction of the U. of I. Board of Trustees, assessed grant processes on the Urbana and Chicago campuses.
The task force's goals included identifying ways to streamline processes, increase standardization across campuses where feasible, improve training for university support staff members and establish institutional best practices.
"Part of the problem at this point is we've brought on new layers (over time) and haven't gotten rid of the old layers," Matt Wheeler, a professor of animal sciences and the USC chair, said in a March 6 presentation to the board of trustees. "It means others in the Big Ten are able to respond more quickly to opportunities. (START) is going to improve our processes and provide us a pathway forward."
The university will invest about $8 million over four years for the initiative.
The myResearch portal will go online later this spring.