Faculty carry the administrative research burden

Researchers at the University applied for 5,332 grants in 2011, and 4,606 were accepted.

by Rebecca Harrington

From a researcher’s point of view, the University of Minnesota doesn’t have enough administrators.

The University has endured criticism over the last month after a Wall Street Journal article scrutinized its administrative spending, but many professors say they have taken on more administrative responsibilities throughout the years.

Principal investigators, or PIs, are the primary grant holders and are now spending 42 percent of their time on administrative tasks rather than on research, according to a recent study that surveyed more than 23,000 PIs at research universities.

At the University, research-related administrative work can mean applying for grants, spending grant money correctly, handling research group finances, adhering to federal research rules and filing patents.

And that’s just for one grant. Most PIs have multiple grants at one time, and they are always applying for more.

The Office of the Vice President for Research’s mission is to make research run smoothly at the University, which includes trying to make the grant process easier for PIs.

As research funding has gotten more competitive and federal regulations have become stricter in the past several years, PIs have to spend more time on administrative duties.

Having support

The amount of grant-related administrative work professors have to do varies across colleges and across departments. Each entity is like a silo, with its own administrative staff.

Alvaro Alonso, an associate professor in the School of Public Health, said the accounting and administrative staff in his department is great.

“It depends from department to department at the University,” he said. “I know that there are some other departments that I know [have] people who have more problems.”

The staff makes his job easier, Alonso said, because he wasn’t trained as an accountant — he was trained as a scientist.

Professors joke that they wish they could do less administrative work, but many say they know the work is necessary in order to get funding for the research.

Civil engineering associate professor Paige Novak said she’s thought about how to relieve an administrative burden for faculty members.

But she said she hasn’t come up with a solution because people would have to be trained in both the science and the administrative procedures.

“It’s hard to figure out who would do it,” she said. “I think it’s just the common thing of the secretaries have too much to do, too, and the accounting staff probably has too much to do. So it’s difficult. But, of course, I wish.”

Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics professor, compared managing a research group to running a small business.

“You have to think about keeping it running,” she said.


Many of the different units within Office of the Vice President for Research exist to make sure researchers comply with funding agencies’ and the federal government’s requirements.

The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, for example, reviews and approves animal research and use so it is humane and doesn’t violate any federal regulations.

Cynthia Gillett, IACUC executive director, said about 90 percent of what the committee asks researchers to report to them is required by the federal government and funding agencies.

“Federal law requires institutions to have animal care committees … before they release any funds for research activities,” she said.

The Human Research Protection Program regulates research that uses humans — like human trials in cancer research, for example. It also oversees research using potentially dangerous biological compounds to protect the researchers using them.

Debra Dykhuis, executive director of the HRPP, said PIs understand that these are federal requirements in place to protect people, so they are willing to fill out the extra paperwork.

“I think the committee and the staff … are generally very good about trying to help people,” she said. “Most of the PIs that we’ve worked with have been very happy, very satisfied with how we’ve helped them try to figure it out.”


As a College of Pharmacy professor, Raj Suryanarayanan gets most of his research funding from companies.

In addition to writing a grant proposal for this kind of funding, researchers have to negotiate an agreement with the company that decides the legal issues.

These negotiations have to happen quickly if the University is going to get the funding. Suryanarayanan said that if the University had more people who were trained in negotiations, it would make things easier.

Suryanarayanan said the individuals doing administrative work are doing great jobs — it’s the system as a whole that needs work.

“There is a new layer of work for everybody,” he said. “That is our problem. In the whole system, there is a lot of extra work that everybody has to do. It makes us all, in my judgment, less efficient.”