Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

The Long and Winding Road: The Politics of Building an ERA System

Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

The Long and Winding Road: The Politics of Building an ERA System

Article excerpt


This paper presents a case study of the development of a comprehensive ERA system at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). Authors examine the external barriers and internal political pressures that can affect the implementation of ERA on a university campus. This case study demonstrates the importance of involving all stakeholders in the planning, development and implementation of ERA; the necessity of paying attention to the needs, the fears, the egos and the turf concerns of all constituents and partners; and the reality that change can be a unpredictable and circuitous process.


Many research administrators have found the road to Electronic Research Administration (ERA) to be long and winding - and often quite grueling. Before attempting to establish an ERA program at your institution, you must be certain that you are personally convinced of its value, otherwise you will not have fortitude to stay the course. For one thing, you will be heading into virtually uncharted territory, and you may have to construct your own map to reach your (as yet) unknown destination.

The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) began to seriously pursue the implementation of a comprehensive ERA system in 1994. However, as early as 1986, Penn State's Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) had implemented electronic databases.

The first system was a proprietary system that ran on a CPT-UNIX computer. Limited in scope, it only recorded basic information about the proposals and awards we processed; it did not have a proposal or budget development component. However, the system did enable college research administrators to access the database via a modem connection. While these forerunners were certainly ERA applications, they were not comprehensive ERA systems.

Justifying the Need for ERA

Significant resources are required to implement an ERA system. To justify such expenditures, upper administration must be convinced of the need for ERA. At Penn State, our commitment to the development of ERA was driven by the following factors:

1. Staff Reductions. The Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) encountered severe staff reductions during the early 1990s. Penn State embarked on a rebudgeting program that was led by the "Futures Committee." This committee set up a schedule that required units all across Penn State to "recycle" operating funds back into a central pool. Futile attempts were made to exempt expenses that were included in the indirect cost pools since these costs were reimbursable under OMB Circular A-21.. By reducing the amount of funds spent supporting sponsored projects administration, we actually reduced income, thus further exacerbating our financial difficulties. The recycling required led to a 40 percent reduction in the OSP's budget for operating costs and a 25 percent reduction in staff positions.

2. Increasing Workload. These staff reductions coincided with dramatic increases in workload. From FY85 to FY95, Penn State's research base grew 250 percent larger, while professional staffing in OSP shrank by nearly 25 percent. During the period of FY91 through FY95 alone, the per capita workload of OSP staff increased by over 80 percent.

3. Geography. Over the past decade, OSP moved (in several steps) from the central campus to a site located three miles from the campus core. The logistics of reviewing and approving proposals and awards from this site was extremely cumbersome and resulted in the need for additional financial and human resources.

4. Reengineering. As reported in a previous study by the authors (SRA Journal, Volume XXIX, Nos. 1 and 2, 1997, pp. 25-31) Penn State developed a "distributed environment" for research administration. The nature of this "virtual organization" required instant access to shared data and documents across Penn State.

5. Infrastructure Changes. In the conversion from the CPT data system to a client-server network and database, the colleges lost access to their own data because the new system lacked essential security features. …

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