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Protecting science from bureaucracy

A growing number of universities and institutions are establishing offices that support researchers

FABIO OTUBOA FAPESP initiative that encourages universities and research institutions to reduce the amount of time researchers spend on bureaucratic administration of projects, freeing them to do their primary task, which is to produce knowledge, picked up speed in 2012. This is a program that trains employees of universities in the state of São Paulo who are responsible for progress and project outcome reports, and other requirements associated with research projects to relieve researchers of that burden. During the past year, 38 groups of six employees each attended four-day training sessions at FAPESP headquarters in the state capital to become thoroughly familiar with the financing mechanisms offered by the Foundation and the related accountability requirements.

“It was a gratifying experience, because during the training the technical personnel come to understand the meaning of the accountability requirements and realize how they will be able help the researchers,” says Marcia Regína Napoli, responsible for the Support, Information, and Communication Management Office (GAIC) of FAPESP’s Executive Board, which has coordinated the program since 2010. “The cases in which the greatest progress has been observed are those in which unit directors are committed to the idea of maintaining a team of technical personnel that is truly dedicated to supporting the researchers,” she says.  Of the approximately 60 classes that have been trained at FAPESP since October 2010, at least 80% have established some kind of support services for researcher(s) at their institution(s). This finding was made by the GAIC’s own team, which has been visiting all the units where personnel trained at FAPESP are working. “Each institution sets up the assistance according to its needs. But the results have been very positive,” says Ricardo Vieira Simplício, of the GAIC.

The Santa Casa de Misericórdia of São Paulo is an example of a well-organized service that has received FAPESP training. Since the creation of its Research Support Unit (SAP), which now has five employees, this hospital has been able to increase the number of projects submitted to FAPESP and winning approval. “We have a long tradition in education and assistance to the general public and serve more than 8,000 patients a day. We want our physicians to develop a tradition in research as well,” says Professor Lia Mara Rossi, coordinator of the SAP. “We started by visiting all the departments to show them that the service exists and to offer it to them. We always told the researchers: “Don’t worry, because we will handle all the boring stuff,” Rossi says. The office works on several fronts.  It advises researchers who are interested in submitting projects about the documents and procedures involved. It alerts them to requests for proposals,  and serves as a bridge between students interested in obtaining grants for undergraduate research and master’s degree study and the leaders of research groups. Based on their past experience with projects that have been accepted, the staff from these offices suggest preventive actions. “If we’re going to apply for a grant for a student who needs to improve his or her performance, I suggest at the outset that the researcher recognize the limitations on the academic transcript, but we point out why we believe in the student’s potential.

That way, we prevent the project from being sent back to us with questions about that aspect. If a researcher has not published anything for a quite awhile, this issue should also be anticipated and explained in advance,” says Rossi.  The service also furnishes background information on the researchers from ResearcherID and Google Citations, which provide data on an individual’s scientific production, a requirement made by research-sponsoring agencies. “We consider our job as well done when the project is accepted by the FAPESP system and its merits begin to be evaluated,” says Rossi. About half the projects are approved, but the office invariably asks that rejected projects be reconsidered, and in fact many are re-evaluated.  Since 2008, the service has helped administer 226 research projects, and monitored 160 of them directly. Of those, 89% are FAPESP projects, 7% are sponsored by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), and 4% are sponsored by the Brazilian Innovation Agency (Finep).  The team handles the price-taking, issuance of checks, and archiving of invoices for each project and stores all the data on electronic media. This means that when it comes time to render an accounting, everything is well organized. Researchers are alerted in advance as to which tasks cannot be delegated—such as writing scientific reports.  There is also a service that will translate the scientific articles to English and submit those manuscripts to journals.  “There’s nothing more natural than that for the knowledge generated to be used to produce a scientific article,” says Professor Rossi.

Relief and enthusiasm
Most researcher support offices report similar kinds of experiences: at first they are viewed with skepticism by some researchers, particularly the veterans. But gradually, when they see the encouraging results obtained by their colleagues who have projects, researchers join in with relief and enthusiasm.  “Some allow us only to perform certain tasks. We know we have won their trust when they leave the checkbooks with us,” says Marli Mendonça da Silva, supervisor of the Regional Office for Support to Research and Globalization (Erapi) at the Araraquara Chemistry Institute of the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp). The Erapi (www.iq.unesp.br/#!/pesquisa/escritorio-de-pesquisa/) was one of the first to receive training at FAPESP and now has 50 m2 of office space and four employees. It is currently managing a hundred projects.

Because Mendonça da Silva was experienced in this area—she had begun to handle researcher accountability tasks at the institute in the mid-1980s—she was invited to publicize the idea at other Unesp schools and to participate in a training initiative created by Unesp in 2010. She started out at Unesp in 1986 as an employee in the communications division and two years later began to handle accountability requirements for professors who had several research projects underway. These included José Arana Varela, now CEO of the Executive Board of FAPESP, and Vanderlan Bolzani, member of the coordinating committee of the Biota-FAPESP program (Brazilian Biodiversity Research program). “I worked practically alone for a long time, so it was tough when I went on vacation, but it has been very satisfying to see how this work has begun to be appreciated in recent times,” she says.

Major research universities have well-organized services—the so-called Grant Management Offices—to help researchers manage their projects, a mission seen as an essential link to ensure the flow of outside funds into the research. At Harvard University, for example, project management is coordinated by the Office for Sponsored Programs (OSP), website www.osp.fad.harvard.edu. With 60 technical personnel working together with different university offices, the OSP participates in all stages of the project lifecycle, from fundraising to project preparation and bureaucratic administration, to the final accounting. Since 2007, the OSP has operated a training program for technical personnel from all over the university, offering both in-person and on-line courses. A guide to good practices is being developed to help all university staff members administer research resources. The idea, notes Ashley Rodger, coordinator of operations and training at OSP, is to streamline procedures and supply answers to universal questions, enabling all employees to help solve problems that arise frequently.

In Brazil, the complexity of research project management, which frequently involves teams from several institutions and disciplines working with sizeable sums of money, has led quite a few universities to expand their services. Unicamp was a pioneer when in 2003 it set up its UAP, Portuguese acronym for its Researcher Support Unit (www.prp.rei.unicamp.br/uap). Today, it has five employees working locally and two others at offices where there is high demand for these services and that, because they have raised funds for thematic projects from FAPESP, have qualified to have one staff member to manage those projects. The University of São Paulo (USP) has made services available at several campuses, but in the past two years the Office of the Provost for Research decided to disseminate the experiences throughout the institution and so asked FAPESP to provide specialized training. Similarly, Unesp, starting in 2009, decided to establish offices of that kind at all its schools.  To FAPESP, the presence of institutional support for the researcher is becoming an important criterion in evaluating research projects. The existence of this kind of service was one of the conditions it required of the institutions that host the new Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC), which may receive as much as R$4 million a year from the Foundation.  A direct e-mail channel with FAPESP was set up for all the trained teams. “It’s one way to encourage them to maintain a continuing dialogue with FAPESP in order to get questions answered quickly or ask for new instructions,” says Marcia Regina Napoli of the GAIC.

In 2010, USP’s Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine (FMRP) established a researcher support structure, known as the Projects Management Center (CGP), and sent employees for training in the very first class held under the FAPESP program. After being trained, the team visited all 14 departments of the FMRP to publicize the service.  “During the feasibility study, people realized how large a proportion of the school’s budget comes from research-sponsoring agencies,” says FMRP director Benedito Maciel. The list of services rendered includes procurement, documentation verification, and preparation of statements of account.  Researchers are notified when requests for proposals are issued that may interest them. In 2012, the FMRP submitted 22 projects under the announcement issued for the Research Program for the Unified Health Care System (PPSUS). Under the 2010 announcement, only six projects had been submitted.

The initial resistance by some researchers began to be overcome after the Extra-budgetary Managerial Information System (Sigeo) was adopted. That system enables researchers to monitor, via the Internet, administration of their project funds.  The Sigeo records the balance of funds, files checks and invoices, warns researchers about deadlines and the need to submit reports, and also indicates how much had been saved when, after requesting quotations from suppliers, the center attempts to negotiate discounts. Of the 100 FMRP professors, only 43 are served by the center. “We give priority to new projects, because when we try to assist with the management of old ones, we find we have to spend too much time correcting problems,” says  Professor Maciel. The intention now is to double the number of employees, from two to four, because the demand is bound to increase. Those personnel will work in coordination with other of the school’s services. A survey of professors found that 79% had projects that were financed by agencies, but only 28% obtained assistance from the CGP.  The same survey revealed that 92% of professors had an interest in using the CGP services. FAPESP is responsible for 78% of the funds obtained for projects managed by the center.

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