U to help more when researchers go global

Before, faculty conducting research abroad navigated int’l policies alone.

by Rebecca Harrington

A University of Minnesota-Duluth graduate student spent eight days in a Brazilian jail in 2009.

He had the wrong kind of visa during his research trip.

“It’s an example of the type of thing that can happen if the appropriate legal and administrative steps aren’t followed in foreign countries,” University of Minnesota General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said.

To prevent these issues, the University’s Global Programs and Strategy Alliance centralized resources and launched the Global Operations Initiative this month. It brings together an advisory team of representatives from University offices like human resources, tax management, general counsel and risk management, GPSA director Stacey Tsantir said.

The initiative will help prevent the “University run-around,” she said.

“There just hasn’t been sort of an easy way to get an answer,” she said. “Our hope is Global Operations helps to consolidate all of the resources.”

There is no current official record of international research projects. But University policy changed in December 2011 to require faculty and staff to pre-register their travel plans so they have better documentation of University travel.

Tsantir said this change in policy and the global initiative should help track how many international research projects exist to better provide resources for them. According to her, benefits will include reduced costs, greater efficiency and increased international research.

But biology professor Jeannine Cavender-Bares said she didn’t know how the initiative would be able to handle the large number of researchers working in different countries around the world.

“I’m hopeful that this initiative will actually benefit researchers here,” she said, “but it’s going to require a lot of individualized work in terms of the countries involved and the particular institutions and legal systems people are having to navigate.”

Cavender-Bares said she needed to pay one of her researchers in Costa Rica, but grant requirements made it difficult to navigate international policies.

Without a central resource to call for help, the plant ecologist said she was forced to figure it out alone.

While researching in Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica, Cavender-Bares said she had issues making sure the right people were communicating between the University and other partner institutions. She said she’s also had to work out how to move biological material across borders, set up personal bank accounts and make subcontracts that adhere to grant requirements.

“We had to navigate the legal system completely on our own,” she said. “In some cases, I’ve had to spend large amounts of time working with lawyers locally to address employee issues.”

A pilot program for the global initiative started in March, Tsantir said. She said the kinds of issues worked on so far include getting cash in remote locations to pay staff, leasing offices, paying taxes in foreign countries and complying with other countries’ laws.

Abel Ponce de León, CFANS senior assistant dean for research and graduate programs, said it’s hard to plan for these issues alone.

“You can encounter many different issues that you never planned for until you get there … and usually you find yourself alone,” he said. “In this case, having someone to rely upon to provide the necessary information … will facilitate and resolve issues.”

The advisory team will sit down with researchers before they travel to anticipate these issues before they happen, Tsantir said.

Having a general knowledge of working abroad would be helpful, Cavender-Bares said, but every situation is different and will require “a lot of personalized attention.”

For when the advisory team doesn’t have a solution, Tsantir said GPSA has a contract with consulting firm High Street Partners, which specializes in international higher education work.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel and become experts in the employment rules of Zambia of something like that,” Rotenberg said. “We can ask them to use their expertise to get up to speed very quickly.”

If the work will benefit the University as a whole, Tsantir said, the money for HSP’s fee will come out of central funds. But if it’s consulting work for a single research team, the team will have to pay the consulting fee.

College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences professor Brian Steffenson has researched plant pathology in South Africa, Turkey and Kenya, among other places. He said he thought the initiative was a good idea and that he will contact the program with issues in the future.

“Anything that helps break down barriers and facilitate international work will definitely be a benefit for all of us,” he said.