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Shared Service Center to help NMSU researchers streamline grant processes

New Mexico State University researchers brought in more than $125 million in grants and contracts last year alone. These funds not only provide a robust research environment for the university but also support jobs in the community.

Group of people standing on the grass under the trees
NMSU College of Arts and Sciences associate dean Jeffrey Brown, second from right, stands for a photo with Shared Services Center staff members outside Breland Hall. (NMSU Photo)

Managing these large grants requires NMSU professors to spend time away from their laboratories and classrooms to perform a variety of administrative tasks.

“The competition for external research funding is fierce,” said Jeffrey Arterburn, Regents professor in chemistry and biochemistry. Arterburn oversees a number of research grants and serves as director of the New Mexico IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence, which received renewed funding of more than $18 million over the next five years. “It is critical to improve the efficiency of managing these hard-won grants and contracts so that we can continue to build high quality research programs at NMSU."

Arterburn is among 62 principal investigators in the College of Arts and Sciences to utilize NMSU’s first Shared Services Center, which opened in March. The center provides a one-stop shop for faculty to interact with staff that can help with the many areas involved in overseeing research grants and contracts from the proposal writing process to the follow-through once the grant is funded.

“Researchers in this college generate more than $20 million a year in external funding,” said Christa Slaton, College of Arts and Sciences dean. “We want our faculty to make the best use of their time in teaching and research. It is our goal to improve the support they need in advancing their research.”

NMSU Executive Vice President and Provost Dan Howard created the Research Processes Task Force in 2013 to find new ways to improve support for researchers in administering grant funding. The Shared Service Center was one of a number of ideas that came from that task force.

The center staff will work closely with faculty who serve as principal investigators on grants, developing budget reports that inform them of account balances and reminding them about deadlines for the expenditure of funds. Among other functions the center also will help with hiring staff and purchasing supplies and equipment.

“A faculty member can go to offices in one location here to discuss grant-related hiring needs, to discuss grant budgets and submission, and to discuss administration of the grant after it is awarded,” said Jeffrey Brown, College of Arts and Sciences associate dean who also served on a task force that researched the concept for NMSU. “Staff members can readily interact to answer any grant questions and to speed the process of setting up grant indexes, to streamline approvals for grant expenditures, and to streamline the process of sending invoices to agencies and closing awards that have ended.”

Brown and the other members of that group spent months preparing the basis for the first Shared Service Center. After examining a number of operations at other universities, the committee decided on a handful of college-based centers rather than one centralized unit for the entire university.

“We wanted the personnel in the center to be embedded within colleges so that they could identify more closely with the faculty members of the college and their needs, thus enhancing service,” explained Howard.

The College of Arts and Sciences Shared Services Center is located inside Breland Hall and houses a staff of nine people representing the Office of Grants and Contracts, Sponsored Projects Accounting and Human Resources as well as the college.

“Questions often arise concerning the budgets, hiring, reporting, and issues that require contacting the funding agencies, and now this can all be addressed efficiently and consistently from within a single entity,” said Nancy Chanover, astronomy associate professor, who recently received a grant from the Jet Propulsion Lab. “As the principal investigator of several federally funded grants that range in size and complexity, I expect that the Shared Services Center in the College of Arts and Sciences will drastically improve my ability to administer those grants. Having the staff who helped me with the grant proposals and the post-award staff located in the same place and able to talk to each other just makes sense.”

Ultimately, the goal of center staff is make the process less of a burden for faculty members who serve as principal investigators responsible for grants ranging from thousands to millions of dollars.

“I’m pleased to see the people I normally interact with for grant administration, human resources and the Office of Grants and Contracts are all in the same place,” said Stephen Pate, physics professor.

“It really helps us to be more readily available for researchers,” said Michelle Duttle, an administrator from the Office of Grants and Contracts, who now works in the center. “It makes it a lot easier to see us, and there’s a personal aspect for the PIs (principal investigators) to see who they are dealing with.”

More than 100 grants in the College of Arts and Sciences are now being administered through the Shared Service Center.

"I think that the new working environment for the staff is more conducive to communication with PIs, and I have been impressed with the positive attitudes of those involved in looking at the various research administration processes to find ways for them to function more efficiently and better serve the needs of researchers,” Arterburn said. “I have already had very helpful interactions addressing personnel hiring issues and appreciate the access to informative and productive back-and-forth discussions to work through complicated situations.”

The next centers are planned for NMSU’s Colleges of Engineering and Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.