Shared services unit streamlines grants

While efforts to centralize and streamline administrative services have recently come under fire from some faculty, one shared services center that handles research grant administration has received positive feedback from science departments.

Faculty Research Management Services offers professors assistance in applying for and managing funds sponsored by federal and nonfederal agencies, said Joanne Bentley, the unit’s director. Though the 16 employees of the shared services center have worked with more than 20 academic departments so far, Bentley said their work has been conducted primarily with major research departments in the sciences and social sciences. Bentley said the services FRMS offers are especially important now because federal funding levels have declined in recent years — increasing strain on faculty and staff as departments have needed to increase the number of proposals they make.

Efforts to reshape administrative services at Yale largely began in response to a federal investigation into Yale’s grant accounting practices that began in June 2006, Vice President for Finance and Business Operations Shauna King said at the Yale College faculty meeting in February. The investigation examined 6,000 grants to the University from 30 federal agencies, and concluded in December 2008 when the University agreed to pay $7.6 million for purportedly mishandling federal research grants.

As administrators examined Yale’s systems following the investigation, they determined there was a lack of consistency in how different departments handled similar administrative tasks, King said. In an effort to streamline some of those processes for grant administration — which King called “an area of complexity and regulation where mistakes are of high consequence to individual faculty members and to the institution” — FRMS was officially launched in May 2011.

Though roughly 20 professors protested Yale’s efforts to implement shared services on a broader level at the February meeting, King introduced FRMS at the meeting as one example of a shared services unit that has received “positive acclaim” from departments and faculty applying for grants. But some professors criticize the more general shared services business model as an across-the-board system that does not meed the needs of individual departments.

When King and University President Richard Levin introduced shared services as a University-wide initiative prior to the recession, the goal was to reduce the burden on faculty and staff rather than to cut costs. They were forced to re-evaluate their priorities in the wake of the budget crisis, and now say shared services will also help tighten finances.

Staff in FRMS were transferred from other areas of the University, including a number of departments on Science Hill, King said, adding that some FRMS positions were paid for by cutting positions in her own office. Whereas departmental staff have a wide range of responsibilities, Bentley said FRMS employees help departments meet the requirements associated with different grants by focusing on tracking sponsored research.

Since the onset of recession in 2008, federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health have faced cuts, which have trickled down to colleges and universities that depend on grant income as a large portion of their revenue. At Yale, income from grants and contracts made up roughly 24 percent of the operating budget in fiscal year 2011.

The decline in funding has forced Yale’s departments to submit more grant applications, which Bentley said requires a wider knowledge of sponsor agencies.

“We’re grappling with the amount of the demands we have for the service,” she said.

FRMS has helped small departments by providing needed expertise in grant administration, and has helped some larger departments compensate for turnover and reorganization in staff caused by retirements and vacancies, Bentley said.

Bentley said staff in FRMS meet regularly with faculty applying for funding and administrators, and provide them reports on their work. Departments and their faculty have only worked with the shared services center if they have requested its assistance, she added.

The shared services center offers both pre-award and post-award assistance to departments, Bentley said. Pre-award assistance involves helping principal investigators — generally the faculty applying for grants — determine whether they are eligible for the funding, ensuring all the sponsor agency’s requirements are fulfilled and improving the overall quality of the proposal, Bentley said. Post-award support involves tracking grants after they are awarded to ensure funding guidelines are met, expenditures are occurring at an appropriate pace and faculty have satisfied their commitment to the agency, she added.

Bentley said some centralized University services were provided to departments before the official launch of FRMS, but not “with the formality or extensiveness we have today.”

The Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology receives both pre-award and post-award support from FRMS, department chair Ronald Breaker said. While all the department’s work in grant administration was handled “in the distant past” by one departmental staff member, Breaker said, in recent years the department has added a new employee and has also gradually shifted work to the shared services unit.

Breaker said the team of grant administration experts at FRMS have “taken everything our faculty members have thrown at them so far,” including a record high of grant applications submitted in a single quarter.

“Before our full transition to the external units for Pre-Award and Post-Award support, we were really overstressing our internal systems, particularly when major grant submission deadlines approached,” Breaker said in an email in late February.

FRMS provides pre-award support to eight major research departments and 13 other departments, and post-award support to seven major research departments and 19 other departments.

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