Researchers subscribe to new grant system

Sean Madigan

As one of the premiere public research institutions in the country, the University receives thousands of research grants each year.
Last year University researchers garnered more than 350 million sponsored research dollars. The National Institutes of Health alone awarded University researchers more than $128 million 1998.
But in recent years, an NIH exceptional status has plagued University researchers. Because of a series of misappropriations of funds largely due to the illegal distribution of the experimental anti-organ rejection drug ALG, all University researchers face stricter funding guidelines.
So, in order to restore confidence from the NIH, the University established the Grants Management Program in 1993. The program is designed to completely reorganize the grant application and management process and eventually remove the University’s exceptional status designation.
“This is what we have done to settle with the NIH and we have received nothing but positive feedback from them,” said Dr. David Hamilton, the program’s director.
Aside from the administrative restructuring of the management program, Hamilton and Dr. Winanne Schumi introduced a new electronic system that they hope will make the application process, and eventually the management of research grants, quicker, more accessible and accurate for researchers Universitywide.
Dubbed the Electronic Grants Management System, the new application system is Web-based and allows both researchers and administrators to access the application system over the Internet. It allows users to fill out application forms, create budgets and update biographical information on Internet databases.
“Implementing this puts us way ahead of any other institution in the country,” said Hamilton the project organizer. To date, no other university in the country has a similar electronic system in place.
Within a year, the project team hopes to entirely eliminate paper from grant application process.
“We want to keep it in an electronic format, send it from department to department electronically, archive it, then transfer it to the sponsoring agency, electronically,” said Christine Maziar, the University’s vice president of research and dean of the Graduate School.
Grant applications are still sent to organizations in hard copy format. The NIH and National Science Foundation, which account for the funding of more than 65 percent of the University’s total grant dollars, do not yet have the technology to receive electronic grant applications.
“They’re not ready to receive it — we’re ready to send,” Schumi said.
Although some researchers have been using EGMS for more than a year, the University officially unveiled the Web-based software at a gala Thursday at the Biological Sciences Building.
“This is a celebration, which is the beginning of the end of exceptional status,” Frank Cerra, senior vice president of the University’s Academic Health Center, said as he addressed more than 100 University faculty members and administrators in attendance.
Within the last 18 months more than 800 users have logged on to become acclimated with the system, create research budgets and even prepare grant proposals. There are approximately 2,500 principle researchers at the University, not including administrators that will use the system.
Creating budgets
Many researchers find creating budgets a time-consuming and frustrating process.
“The budget is tedious,” said Dr. Ken Roberts, a researcher in cell biology. “Writing the science (portion of a grant application), for an investigator, is more comfortable,” Roberts added. He used EGMS several months ago to create a NIH budget request for his work on sperm cryopreservation.
Software companies offer template programs to create budgets on Microsoft Word or Excel-like formats. But Hamilton contends the EGMS budget tool offers much more than a spreadsheet function.
The EGMS budget tool automatically calculates interests and inflation rates at the University for up to five years. Indirect costs and fringe benefits rates, which often fluctuate, are also updated into the web system automatically. When changes are made to the budget, all figures are adjusted accordingly.
The University, through EGMS, can set standard accounting categories. Researchers can enter budget figures and the system automatically assigns them to the University’s chart of accounts.
“It has checks — the software will recognize if you entered something incorrectly,” Roberts said.
Research budgets not only have to be correct and accurate, but accessible.
“It’s very common to go back and forth into a budget and dink around with it,” said Marty Wessendorf, a professor of cell biology and neuroanatomy. Researchers and administrators can access their budgets on the Internet anywhere in the world.
Admittedly, EGMS didn’t make Wessendorf’s life as a researcher much easier. “It didn’t — not initially. It’s a complete and utter nightmare the first time you use it,” Wessendorf said. “I tend to be a skeptic every time people say a computer will save me time, but once you get through it the first time there are some real advantages to it.”
The EGMS tool cuts budget preparation time drastically, Roberts said. “On a brand new grant with a brand new budget, I can safely say it would take about a quarter of the time,” he said. Depending on the type of grant, the budget process can take more than three days.

Saving time and money
The EGMS tool not only saves time for researchers developing budgets, it saves time for the administrators who review grant applications.
“If the proposal is created on EGMS, then the rates are already there and the calculations are already applied,” Schumi said. Rather than recheck figures, administrators in the review process can focus more attention to other issues regarding the grant, Schumi added.
Often, when a process is streamlined, cuts in administration are made, but Schumi and Hamilton said the new system will make the review process more manageable.
“The average GA (grant administrator) has a case load of 300 to 400 accounts. They have been severely retrenched in the last four years,” Schumi said. “We have never been at a reasonable capacity to manage things,” she added.