Shouldn't Research Administrators Know Something about Research?

By Howard, Charles F., Jr. | SRA Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview
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Shouldn't Research Administrators Know Something about Research?

Howard, Charles F., Jr., SRA Journal


Research administrators (RAs) come from a variety of educational backgrounds and perform a variety of functions related to obtaining and administering external grants and contracts (Rose 1991; D'Agostino, Nivin, Procter and Stevenson 1991). Yet virtually all of the functions performed by RAs are administrative; very few RAs are directly involved in conducting research. This is due, in part, to the traditional division of labor between researchers and RAs: The investigator plans and performs the research, and the RA carries out the administrative tasks that support the research.

Unfortunately, this division of labor may lead many RAs to conclude that they are merely creating a "proposal sandwich." The investigator's research project becomes the middle filler of the sandwich, and the RAs place the bread around it - the top slice is the face sheet and budget, and the bottom slice is the compliance forms and other administrative assurances.

I contend that there are occasions when input from RAs about the middle of the sandwich would be appropriate and helpful to the investigator. To provide this kind of assistance, however, RAs need to have at least a minimal understanding about the vocabulary and methodological protocols used by the research community. Unfortunately, most practicing RAs have had little training or experience in conducting research.

In this paper, I will present demographic data to support my contention that many of the RAs working in today's research settings have had little, if any, training in research design and methodology. I will then present some examples of how it is possible to convey simplified concepts of research. I will then make the case that helping RAs grasp the essential elements of the research process would benefit the profession of research administration as well as the entire research enterprise. My hope is that this paper will stimulate further discussion of this topic among research administrators, and that this discussion will lead to structured opportunities to learn about research within both the SRA and the NCURA.


As institutions of higher education pursued external grants contracts and grants in the 1940s and 1950s, senior RAs were recruited from two major educational and work experience backgrounds: business/business administration and research (Snyder 1992; Zar 1992). It was common for academic administrators, many of whom had doctoral degrees and were already supervising internal university funds, to assume the additional responsibility of administering external funds. Likewise, researchers who were already administering their own or other departmental grants gradually were given the responsibility for grant administration within the university. Then, as now, there existed a cadre of administrative and clerical personnel who, in addition to their normal administrative responsibilities, began to focus on external grants and contracts.

Since that time, the functions performed by RAs have expanded (Hansen and Shisler 1992). There has also been a proliferation of rules, regulations and

laws implemented by external governmental regulatory bodies and by funding agencies. Today, each governmental and private funding agency has its own requirements for proposal preparation, allowable costs and eligible research activities.

Increasingly complex compliance issues have made it necessary for RAs to spend more time addressing a variety of ethical and practical issues. Accounting oversight of external funds has become more complex. More time and personnel are now required to respond adequately to internal and external accounting regulations.

Moreover, many institutions of higher education have found it necessary to establish, implement and enhance their existing research infrastructure in order to seek and use external funding more effectively. Questions have been raised about what roles RAs should play in this process (Rose 1991; Brandt 1997).

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Shouldn't Research Administrators Know Something about Research?


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