À mon avis
In my opinion
much maligned but
by Martin Kirk
Martin Kirk is president
of the Canadian Association
of University Research
Administrators and director
of the office of research
services at the University of
here 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 administra-
tion 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 mobilizing knowledge from research. Universities
and colleges have responded by setting up
expensive commercialization, kno wledge mobilization 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 ( www.casrai.org) is seeking to
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.