FDP participation benefits smaller research programs

Important benefit: Access to federal ears

Institutions with small research programs have watched in recent years as their regulatory burden has increased, even though they often lack the resources to handle the extra workload.

While not much can be done to change regulations that already exist, some research directors at smaller research institutions have found that they can have some impact on future regulations if they are involved with the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP).

"The whole purpose of the FDP is to establish demonstration projects designed to help streamline the administrative processes between the federal government and research institutions in order to maximize cost effectiveness, without sacrificing good stewardship," says Richard Keogh, PhD, a consultant with InfoEd International of Albany, NY, and a senior advisor for research administration at Rhode Island College in Providence.

Three years ago, Rhode Island College was the first Emerging Research Institutions (ERIs) to join the FDP, Keogh says. The FDP’s roots date back to the mid-1980s, but it wasn’t until more than a decade later that the FDP began to focus on smaller research institutions, Keogh says.

"Their voices were not being heard, and they were not participating in these demonstration projects," Keogh says. "So the FDP, when it moved into phase IV, has begun to remedy that and bring in representatives of institutions from predominantly undergraduate institutions and others who do research."

With three years remaining on the FDP’s phase IV, the only institutions still eligible to join the FDP are those qualifying as ERIs. ERIs are defined by the FDP as those whose annual federally supported research and development expenditures are less than $15 million.

ERIs do not have to pay an annual fee for participation in the FDP, and their input will be heard on phase IV issues, including continued streamlining and standardization of research administration process and suggesting equitable methods for providing and documenting cost sharing and direct effort.

However, the time commitment and travel arrangements might be imposing for institutions which might have only one person in charge of research administration, says Vijaya L. Melnick, PhD, a biologist and director in the office of sponsored research and programs at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC.

Larger research institutions may have the luxury of sending 10 people to FDP meetings, so they can be represented in each committee, Melnick notes. "For my institution, I’m the only person who goes to the meetings, except sometimes an engineering professor might attend a faculty-oriented committee," Melnick says.

Also, small institutions might find it expensive to pay the travel costs of sending staff to the FDP meetings, Melnick notes.

However, when ERIs choose to participate, there are some considerable benefits, she says.

"We find out about new policies being considered by federal agencies, and so we’re able to prepare for those and respond to whether these will be an onus for our institution," Melnick says.

For instance, compliance regulations are a big issue for small institutions because they have a small pool of people involved in research, and this same group would have to be on all of the required committees, including IRBs, Melnick explains. Until the FDP actively sought input from ERIs, the perspective on these requirements came primarily from the nation’s largest research institutions, Melnick notes.

Keogh and Melnick list some of the other benefits for ERIs to joining the FDP:

• FDP participants hear first about new tools and developments. One of the FDP projects was a simplified subcontract form, Keogh notes.

"It’s a much simpler and more streamlined subcontract form between institutions, and, initially, you had to be a member of the FDP to participate and use this form," Keogh says. "I found out about it as a result of the college being an ERI, and adopted that format and form, which saved the institution a great deal of time and effort."

The form became the institution’s standard form, and later it became a standard form for research institutions across the United States, Keogh adds.

Also, Keogh learned about developments in transmitting research proposals electronically to the federal government by sitting at the same table as some of the largest research institutions, which were in on the early developments of the process, he says. "This is a streamlining effort that the FDP is heavily involved in so research institutions don’t have to submit multiple submissions to multiple agencies," Keogh says.

• ERIs can model policies already created at larger institutions. For ERIs that have new or understaffed research offices, one of the benefits to participation in the FDP is having access to policies and procedures that someone else has already developed, Melnick says.

For example, Melnick needed a new misconduct policy, and so she located one that other participants in the FDP had recommended.

"I took that model and made the necessary modifications," Melnick says. "So it’s very useful in the sense that I don’t have to re-invent the wheel."

While many of these policies may be available on the Internet at various institutions’ Web sites, a research administrator might not know where to look or feel comfortable borrowing from these without first having a conversation with someone from that institution, Melnick notes.

Since Melnick is involved with the FDP, she was able to hear about model policies and obtain other FDP participants’ permission to use them.

• FDP participants hear first about proposed federal regulations. Through meetings on the various committees, FDP members hear about possible federal guidelines, policies, and changes from federal staff, Keogh and Melnick say.

"When new guidelines are being discussed and promoted, and these might be put into a ruling down the road, there are significant advantages to being there first to hear about these," Keogh says. "It helps to keep a research institution on their toes."

ERIs participating in the FDP have a little extra time to prepare for new policies, and also have a more effective forum for responding to what’s proposed by federal agencies, Melnick says.

Most small institutions have no say over proposed policies until they’re already published, Melnick notes.

But it’s much more effective to have the opportunity to respond to such policies when they are first being shaped and discussed, and that’s what FDP committee participation offers, Melnick says.

• ERIs can develop a network for collaboration. "There’s an opportunity for collaboration through the FDP," Melnick says.

"We’re looking forward to identifying grants where we can collaborate with other universities," Melnick says. "If this is worked out properly so that the collaboration does not lead to an unequal partnership then it can be very beneficial for both institutions, and the FDP provides that opportunities."