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New Mexico State University

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NMSU takes steps to streamline research processes

Landing a significant grant is challenging enough in a time of shrinking state and federal funds available for even the most important research projects. Even when a researcher at New Mexico State University is able to line up a great idea with a willing funding agency, the challenge may just be starting.

Group of people looking at research poster
Mary O’Connell, Regents Professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, interacts with student researchers during the scholar poster session of the 2012 RISE Medicinal Plants of the Southwest summer workshop. O’Connell encouraged fellow faculty members to provide feedback to continue to improve the new online research portal at NMSU. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
Man outdoors with sun in background.
Electrical engineering professor Steve Stochaj poses for a photograph outside his office. Stochaj’s research interests center around particle astrophysics including solar particles. Stochaj said the new Research Tab is easy to navigate and greatly reduces the administrative burden associated with funded research activities. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Critical work on a research project is only part of what a scientist must juggle in the process from idea to discovery. Research assistants and students must be hired and equipment must be purchased and, as the project gets underway, travel expenses, supplies, budgets, personnel issues and numerous other considerations must be managed along the way. Getting a million dollars to investigate a critical science topic also means shouldering the responsibility for judiciously, efficiently and appropriately spending a million dollars.

How much of this falls on the shoulders of the scientist and how much is handled by university staff members is an ongoing concern at any university. Also critical is how much the research processes that must be followed are seen as a help or hindrance to the scientist.

An initiative at NMSU is underway to ensure that research processes are examined and, if necessary, changed to allow the researchers to spend as much time as possible on what they do best – conduct research – rather than spend unnecessary time and effort in the administration of their grant.

Leading the way is NMSU Executive Vice President and Provost Dan Howard and the Research Processes Taskforce, which began meeting in September 2013 to seek improvements to research support processes that have been a source of concern for more than 25 years.

“We have wonderfully talented faculty members who are seeking solutions to scientific questions about vector-borne diseases, arid lands agriculture, cancer, biofuels and aerospace issues to name only a few,” Howard said. “It doesn’t make sense for these people to spend a lot of their time immersed in administrative chores associated with their grants and contracts. We need to develop the most efficient research support processes possible to make sure our researchers can spend their time seeking new discoveries, rather than dealing with budgetary matters.”

One important change, initiated by the taskforce and implemented by Information and Communication Technologies, has been the development of an online research portal that provides quick and easy access to institutional information that relates not only to the administration of the grant award, but also gives good guidance in the grant writing process. This Research Tab went live Dec. 1, and already has resulted in positive reactions from faculty.

“The main benefit for me is that the Research Tab puts a large number of web tools and informational documents all in one place,” said Stephen Pate, professor of physics. “Most of that information is scattered all over various email directories and file folders that I have on my own computer, and there was always a lot of searching involved to find it. Now I know I can just go to the Research Tab. The main challenge for the future is to make sure there is a mechanism in place to keep the Research Tab up-to-date; we are all familiar with web pages that were once current but became stale through neglect – I hope that won’t happen to the Research Tab.”

Steven Stochaj, distinguished professor in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, agreed.

“Funded research is an important element in the mission of NMSU and appears as one of the five goals in the Vision 2020 Strategic Plan,” Stochaj said. “The new Research Tab on myNMSU places all the information a researcher needs to prepare a proposal or manage a grant in one location that is easy to navigate. Having this information presented in a clear and concise manner greatly reduces the administrative burden associated with funded research activities at NMSU.”

Faculty member Mary O’Connell, Regents Professor in Plant and Environmental Sciences, said the Research Tab’s success also will depend on participation from the wide range of researchers at the university.

“In the past I would have to search through many separate pages and units on the NMSU website to gather the information I needed to prepare a budget for a grant proposal,” O’Connell said. “Now I have the current facilities and administrative rates, the current fringe benefit rates and the current graduate student salaries all gathered in one spot on the new Research Tab. The tab also provides help for me managing my current grants.

“The IT group that built the Research Tab also has provided a mechanism for continued improvement with the Suggestions space on the tab,” O’Connell said. “Research at NMSU is a very diverse enterprise. I know that the tools I need for my program are not the only tools that other researchers need. The IT group is looking for feedback to continue to improve this tab and I hope my colleagues provide that information.”

In addition to the Research Tab, new Shared Service Centers will be set up to give faculty another way to get quick and easy access to institutional support. The first, scheduled to open March 15, will be in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The establishment of Shared Service Centers will provide a one-stop shop for principal investigators who have questions about research proposals, current grants and contracts and human resources,” Howard said. “Among many other functions, Shared Service Center staff will lead efforts to define and develop budget reports that inform PIs of account balances and warn them of impending deadlines for the expenditure of funds. HR personnel in the centers will serve as a point of contact to help with budgeting for staff during the proposal writing process and hiring staff when the grant is funded.

“The centers will improve communication by placing research support staff among the faculty, allowing both groups to know one another better and to view each other as colleagues rather than as opponents,” Howard said.

Although the research process taskforce completed its work in spring of 2014, it will continue to meet, serving as a quality assurance group that will provide feedback and recommendations on research processes and PI training.

Howard said he and NMSU President Garrey Carruthers are focused on improving research processes at NMSU.

“We are committed to making NMSU ‘researcher friendly’ and it is the interests of our researchers that will be foremost in our minds as we make changes to research processes, now and into the future,” Howard said.