Inaugural Symposium for Research Administrators provides laughter, lessons

By Marsha A. Green

David Cutcliffe, Duke's head football coach, looked out at 400 research administrators from Duke and shook his head in amazement.

"Did I hear them say you all manage more than $800 million in grants?" he asked. "My NCAA rule book is this big," he said, holding his hands six inches apart. "How big is yours?"
Four hundred grant administrators from across Duke
took advantage of free professional development
provided by Duke at the inaugural Symposium for
Research Administrators, held at the Bryan Center on
May 26, 2010.

Laughter rippled through Griffith Theater. Cutcliffe struck a chord with grant administrators during the opening session of the inaugural Symposium for Research Administrators.

The free, daylong symposium on May 26 was sponsored by Duke's Research Administration Continuous Improvement (RACI) initiative to provide affordable professional development and networking opportunities to the many employees that help track and administer research grant funds.

Although Cutcliffe joked about rules and regulations, he also used the opening remarks to emphasize the values of teamwork. His remarks resonated with participants as they attended workshops and shared tips and tactics on everything from the differences between Medical Center and University processes to explaining how and why Duke tracks faculty and staff effort on each individual grant.

"It makes the job so much easier if you know who else is doing similar work," said participant Amy H. Mitchell, a grants and contract assistant for Infectious Diseases. "I came away with a couple of good ideas for tracking information that I think I can modify just a bit and use in my department."

That's what conference organizers hoped would happen, said Julie Cole, director of Research Costing Compliance and co-chair of the symposium program committee. With budgets tight, the demand for affordable professional development for grants administrators is high.

"As a research university," Cole said, "we want to provide a cadre of skilled grant management personnel so that the faculty can focus on the science."

 Last fiscal year, more than 1,200 employees were involved in administering $826.7 million in sponsored research funds from government and industry. This research money comprised more than 40 percent of Duke's operating budget, and for many in attendance, the symposium was an opportunity to learn more about the team that supports faculty research.

"We want to be good stewards of the money that we are given so that Duke can continue to get more," Mitchell said.

Duke has grown to be among the top research universities in the country. In the current year alone, there were 4,021 new grant proposals processed, and 2,173 renewed grants. Last year, the university brought in 326 awards worth more than $189 million over the next two years through the federal government's economic stimulus package, placing it fifth nationally in among all universities. 

Cole hopes that Duke will offer a similar symposium each year to help support the growing and increasingly complex profession of grant management. "Participants were really appreciative of the support for grant management from senior leadership that this symposium reflected," she said. "I think it gave a sense of professional accomplishment to all the grant managers who attended, and I hope that the message will spread to those who couldn't be there."