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More time for research

Universities institute support services to cut red tape in researchers' routine

DANIEL BUENOThe São Paulo state universities are organizing services designed to cut the weight of bureaucratic and administrative tasks in the routine of their researchers, such as project management, rendering accounts to promotion agencies, the purchase of material and the prospecting of new lines of funding. After the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), which set up in 2003 a unit to help its researchers render accounts for their projects, the University of São Paulo (USP) and Paulista State University (Unesp) began organizing offices and promoting such services. “The idea is to enable research faculty to focus on their main tasks, which are to teach and to conduct scientific work,” says Marco Antonio Zago, dean of research at USP, who last year launched a support office pilot program at three of the university’s units. The idea, after the initial stage, is to implement these offices throughout the institution.

In April, Unesp approved the creation in all of its units technical sections to provide support for researchers. A work group comprising six technicians is being trained at FAPESP. They are to act as multiple agents in each of the university’s campuses throughout the state. According to the Dean of Research, Maria José Giannini, the new service should enable faculty to focus on their research and orientation work. “We’re certain that this will have an impact on the university’s scientific production, because the faculty will be able to focus more on projects. Today, many complain that they don’t take advantage of all calls for projects because of all the red tape involved,” she said. Among their various duties, these offices are to advise faculty members and students on how to prepare applications for research grants and how to submit projects to agencies. They will also divulge the available fellowships and programs and help to divulge, prepare and fine tune projects. “The offices will check the documentation and send it on to the promotion agencies, providing guidance to the faculty on how to fill in their Lattes CV, support corporate partnerships, divulge public calls linked to the internationalization of Unesp and organize events to integrate foreign students,” says Maria José. The offices will take advantage of the experience of the units that have already developed similar services from their own initiative, such as the Araraquara, São José dos Campos, Marília and Assis campuses.

Unicamp’s experience shows that the target of increasing the number of research projects is palpable. The non-budgeted fundraising from promotional agencies and companies has grown continuously, observes Ronaldo Pilli, the dean of Research at the institution. “Last year, this funding amounted to R$300 million, versus R$220 million in 2008. Our Researcher Support Unit (UAP) accounts in part for this advance, though it’s difficult to measure how much,” he says. UAP mainly helps researchers to render accounts. The researcher must register with the service and present the grant statement for his or her project, with information on the characteristics and amount of the grant, in order for the employees to help with the administration. “They request invoices, warn you when the funds for consumption material are running out and advise you of the deadlines,” states Pilli.

FAPESP has been encouraging the universities in São Paulo state to establish these structures. “This is an important issue for FAPESP,” observed its scientific director, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz. “One must have support to avoid having researchers waste time on the administrative aspects of the project and its management, so that all their time can be centered on research and on providing students with guidance,” he said to the Agência FAPESP news agency. A recent article in the periodical Research Management Review highlights the importance of having structures that provide institutional support for research. “The text shows that in the United States, 42% of researchers’ time is spent on the administrative aspects of their research projects,” stated Brito Cruz. Last October, FAPESP implemented a pilot training program for the institutional support teams, already offered at five of the USP units. According to FAPESP’s administrative director, Joaquim José de Camargo Engler, the initiative began with the development of the program, the training of the team and the preparation of audiovisual material. The objective is to extend this initiative to more USP units, besides other universities and research institutions in São Paulo state. For years, FAPESP has maintained support sites at several universities and institutions. These work as facilitators for the remittance of documentation, besides providing grant holders and researchers with guidance as to the Foundation’s procedures. “However, this activity needed to be expanded. Hence the idea of creating a training program for the teams that the research institutions themselves have established to provide support for researchers,” said Engler to Agência FAPESP.

DANIEL BUENOThe paleontologist Fresia Ricardi-Branco, a professor at the Department of Geology and Natural Resources at the Institute of Geosciences at Unicamp highlights the time that this type of service can save. She has been using one for the last four years. She tells us that before the advent of support units, she had to use several vacation days to put in order the documents required to issue accounts for a project tied to the Biota-FAPESP program in which she had participated. “Research has several stages. First, you have to get funding and the good parts materialize, which are the fieldwork, laboratory work and analyzing the results. The worst part comes last, which is to render accounts,” she says. “And everything becomes more complicated when you have to manage two or three projects at the same time,” she states.

The zoologist Celio Haddad, a professor at Unesp’s Institute of Biosciences in Rio Claro is celebrating the university’s decision to organize the support services. “If things work the way they are meant to, it will be most useful for the UNESP research faculty, because it will give us more time to apply for new grants,” he states. Last month, Haddad spent several days only organizing the red tape needed to bring a visiting researcher, Kelly Zamudio, an American from Cornell University, to Rio Claro. “There were three different processes: one at FAPESP, another at CNPq and it was also necessary to submit her name to Sisbio,” he said, referring to the System of Authorization and Information on Biodiversity at the Ministry of the Environment, which monitors scientific activities. He stresses the need to have qualified staff working at these services. “The employees should be able to speak English to help nowadays at a time when the university is trying to become more international,” he says.

It sometimes takes quite a while for such services to persuade researchers to delegate the task of rendering accounts. Last year, the director of USP’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences (ICB), Rui Curi, created the Sector to Help Submissions and the Management of Funds (Sasar), one of the pilot programs linked to the office of the dean of Research, which is comprised of six employees in charge of providing support for the 150 professors at the unit. So far, 10 faculty members have started using the service to manage 24 projects, but demand is rising. “Our colleagues come and enquire whether the service is good and I show them that I have full confidence in it,” says Curi, who has delivered the administrative aspects of the eight research projects that he is leading to Sasar. The sector is headed by Marcella Panizza, an employee of the financial sector who for years had been helping the faculty of the Department of Anatomy to render accounts. The other employees were admitted by means of recent civil service exams. “There is a learning curve that they will have to cover, but the trend is for the service to become consolidated,” states Curi. According to Marcela, some professors still do not trust the idea of delivering their projects to others. “However, some of them have already contacted us to find out whether the accounts are correct, which is a good start.” Others, she says, find the warnings they get from the team rather strange. “It was common for graduate students to purchase something, present an invoice and ask for reimbursement. Our service makes this impossible, because we are in charge of looking for the suppliers, getting price quotations and only paying once the product has been delivered. We only take them the check to sign. This is the right way of doing things to avoid problems when rendering the accounts,” she says.

The Ribeirão Preto Medical School (FMRP), another USP school that has instituted a support service, chose a different model for its Project Management Center, established in September 2010. Instead of hiring a team to look after the projects, it upgraded the structure that was already in place and is now organizing everything into a computerized system, coordinated by one employee. “The idea is to bring together all the information on the project, from its submission to councils, such as the one on ethics in research, through to the records on the use of funds,” says Benedito Maciel, the head of FMRP. “The system will issue automatic warnings to researchers, informing them about deadlines, for example.” The service manages 15 projects, but there are another 12 forecast. The center will monitor the public notices published by the promotional agencies, besides helping the researchers to prepare their proposals, purchasing goods and rendering accounts.

The aim of the Office of the Dean of Research at USP is to launch, this very year, a computerized system capable of managing research projects, from their management to the rendering of accounts, and to implement this in its units. The system is an initiative of the senior management of the university and of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Computing (ICMC), because of the expertise available in this unit. The ICMC has a service for agreements, fellowships and grants that has been providing its researchers with account rendering, price quotations and buying since the mid-1990’s. These activities are supported by the services available on the intranet. Last year, USP provided the ICMC with a systems analyst to help with the activities of the National Institute of Science and Technology for Critical Onboard Systems, headquartered at its São Carlos unit. “That was when it occurred to us to develop a system to upgrade the work of the service for agreements in order to release researchers for the university’s target activity,” states the ICMC director, José Carlos Maldonado, who also coordinates the National Institute of Science and Technology.

“At this time, professor Zago, the dean of Research, introduced the idea of standardizing and disseminating support services for managing the projects at all the USP units. He put ICMC in charge of preparing the system,” states Maldonado. “Once the system is working, it will provide integrated support for all management and administrative activities pertaining to a project and it should produce a package with all the information and elements for rendering project accounts. This is to be transferred electronically to the promotion agencies,” says Tatiana Deriggi, responsible for the ICMC service of fellowships, agreements and grants. The system is being tested and at the beginning of the second term it should become a corporate system – the process is to be completed by the end of 2011.