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Offices established to free researchers from bureaucratic red tape offer new services

Illustrations Maurício Pierro A FAPESP initiative that seeks to reduce the time researchers spend managing project bureaucracy is beginning to bear fruit, allowing them to focus on their principal activity, which is generating knowledge. In late 2010, the Foundation established a program that offers training to teams of employees from universities and research institutions devoted to reducing the burden of work placed on the scientists in managing and administering their projects.  The training consists of four days of sessions, which are limited to six participants to a class.  Since the program began, more than 110 teams have  received training at Foundation headquarters – and at least 24 of them have organized Research Support Units, which are in full operation.

What is new is that these offices, besides helping purchase supplies and handle accounting, are starting to offer new services.  Some are focusing on seeking out funding opportunities through bid announcements and calls for proposals as well as helping researchers do the work of obtaining funds directly.  Others are providing support not only to the projects, but also to the grantees.  “These offices are becoming more widespread and some already provide significant sophisticated support,” says Marcia Regina Napoli, responsible for the Support, Information, and Communication Management Office (GAIC) of FAPESP’s Executive Board, which has coordinated the program since 2010.

One example is the Research Support Unit at the Albert Einstein – Israel Institute of Education and Research (IIEPAE), which has two employees who provide assistance to parties interested in submitting research proposals to funding agencies, and also support them after funds have been secured, by assisting in the purchase of supplies, handling accounts and even helping to publish the findings in scientific journals.  Associated with the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, the institute has laboratories established in core facilities, a vivarium accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) and a clinical research center where scientific studies are being carried out by 23 contract researchers, 42 faculty members from the graduate academic program, and more than 200 physicians from the hospital’s clinical staff involved in research.  Since its establishment in 2012, the unit has already helped with the submission of 67 research project proposals.  The approval rate for projects submitted is close to 61% and fundraising from research-funding agencies has increased 323% from 2012 to 2013.

The work has various fronts in what is known as the pre-award phase.  Every day, the team tracks calls for proposals and bids issued in Brazil (by visiting websites of research-funding agencies) and abroad (through a paid service) and sends emails to  researchers at the institution who may be interested. “This opportunity mapping is the first thing we do every day,” says Aline Pacífico Rodrigues, the unit’s coordinator of research projects. When someone indicates interest, Pacífico and her team schedule a meeting for advising. “Sometimes we need to align the researcher’s expectations with regard to funding.  Some, for example, want the agencies to fund services or exams.  We explain that it is easier to obtain funds to pay for supplies, buy equipment and hire third parties for occasional services,” she says.  “We always try to offer them some solution and we never close any doors.”

PrintIllustrations Maurício Pierro The unit does not help the researcher write his or her proposal, though, because this task cannot be delegated. “The scientific merit of the project comes from the researcher.  Our role is to eliminate the bureaucratic burden involved, which is not the researcher’s core activity,” Pacífico says.  However, counseling services are provided.  The unit hired a retired professor from the University of São Paulo (USP) as consultant, tasked with conducting preliminary assessment of project proposals.  “She analyzes the project and suggests changes that make it more competitive, and she has an eye similar to that of the project evaluator,” Pacífico explains.  This prevents a less experienced researcher from committing predictable errors.  If the project is rejected, the offices determines whether it is possible to request reconsideration.  “We analyze the reviewer’s evaluation and sometimes, it becomes clear that only minor adjustments are needed to make it acceptable.”  Pacífico mentions the case of a researcher who was unable to hide his disappointment when his first project was rejected. “He sent an email apologizing for having wasted our time.  I showed him that it was not the end of the line and that we could request a reconsideration.  On the second try, the project was approved,” she says.  In some situations, though, “no” does mean the end of the line.  “If, for example, the problem is curricular in nature, or if the evaluator thinks that the proposal writer does not have the experience needed to carry out a particular project, there is not much we can do,” she says. Pacífico and her team also work during the post-award phase, which involves managing projects once they have been approved. They purchase the required supplies for the various projects, organize the accounts and instruct the researchers so as to avoid making mistakes.  At the end of the project, they encourage researchers to publish their findings.  The institute contracts the services of a science communication service, which offers workshops with article authors, and helps them write their manuscripts.

The GAIC team at FAPESP, which offers training to employees and makes periodic visits to offices in the process of implementation, has noted that there are inconsistencies in the types of services offered – and there are cases where institutions cannot get the idea beyond the planning stage.  “We see that the most well-organized offices are those associated with units whose directors are invested in the success of the initiative and are directly involved in it,” says Marcia Regina Napoli, of GAIC.

The Center for Project Support (CAP), associated with the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at USP Ribeirão Preto, was established in May 2014 and is already working on managing 12 research projects, involving nearly R$10 million.  Establishing the office was one of the campaign promises of Maria Vitória Bentley, who assumed directorship of the school in January 2014.  “I reallocated two employees, one with a background in accounting and the other with an undergraduate degree in information sciences, to organize the office,” she says, inspired by the successful experience of the Projects Management Center (CGP) at USP’s Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 203). To help in the work, the office purchased financial management software customized to the needs and operating approaches of the CAP.  The team works together with the offices of university procurement and treasury to facilitate the process of importation involving USP, FAPESP and the CNPq’s Importa Fácil [Easy Import] program. They also help faculty and administrative staff manage project accounts and draft budget proposals according to agency and university rules, acting as a source of information.  “Our next step is to improve the organization and begin to seek out new opportunities,” the professor says. For now, the office handles only projects whose terms of grant award were signed after its establishment, including two thematic projects under FAPESP’s technical reserve for institutional research infrastructure, and international research projects, in addition to projects funded by the CNPq, FINEP and USP.  Bentley says this number will increase.  The unit submitted two proposals to the National Institutes of Science and Technology program and is in the process of signing an agreement with BNDES.

PrintIllustrations Maurício Pierro Some of the best examples of research support units were selected to present their experiences at a workshop scheduled for November 4, 2014 at FAPESP. The case of the Albert Einstein – Israel Institute of Education and Research is one of them.  Another notable example was that of Embrapa Instrumentação, located in São Carlos, whose research support staff also helps grantees.  A third experience worthy of mention is from the Office of Research and Projects of the Institute of Language Studies (IEL), at the University of Campinas (Unicamp). It is one of the oldest researcher support initiatives, in place since 1993.  It serves 65 faculty members and 17 researchers-collaborators from the institute’s three departments.  “The work does not consist simply of project accounting.  The unit provides price quotes needed during project preparation, helps input data on agency sites and monitors the publication of domestic and international calls for proposals,” says Prof. Matilde Virginia Ricardi Scaramucci, director of the IEL since 2011. The team consists of three staff members — a secretary and two technical staff — to assist researchers. “Because the framework is so lean, we’re not able to do everything we would like to.  But they are able to keep track of the dates when researchers and grantees need to submit their renewals,” she says.  Researcher adherence to the IEL varies, however.  Some delegate all bureaucratic tasks to the team while others assign only a few of them. “We want to expand the service.  We would like to have an employee who speaks English well,” she says.  In 2013, IEL submitted 128 proposals to research-sponsoring agencies.  Last year, researchers from the Institute received R$3.9 million in funds  from FAPESP alone – in 2011, the total was R$2 million.

About three years ago, São Paulo State University (Unesp) decided to establish a researcher support unit on each of its 22 campuses located throughout the state.  The Regional Office for Support to Research and Globalization (Erapi) of the School of Architecture, Arts and Communications (FAAC) in Bauru is one of the best organized. Opened in  2012, it has seen 72% growth in requests for research assistance and 66% growth in scholarship applications.  “We  respond to 200 requests for information a week,” says Angélica Parreira Lemos Ruiz, academic and technical manager at FAAC.  She heads up a team of two employees responsible for supporting approximately105 faculty members, 400 graduate students and 1,580 undergraduates. “Everything goes through us, such as requests, grant and scholarship management, research assistance, use of the technical reserve, budget preparation. We assist them in preparing proposals, obtain signatures from researchers and track cases,” says Ruiz.  A database of information on researchers and projects was established to monitor performance of the office, whose establishment was inspired by examples such as the Erapi at the Institute of Chemistry in Araraquara, which has been in place since the 1980s. “We think that within the next five years, our statistics will get a lot better, promoting research and generating quality knowledge at our institution,” she says.

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