Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Not too long ago, when someone in the Division of Sponsored Programs (DSP)—which helps researchers with funding and grant compliance—needed to find information about a project they’d have to walk over to a Lektriever, a kind of Ferris wheel for organizing file folders.

If the folder was missing, they’d email a message to everyone in the office to locate the file. This was complicated by the fact that there are often multiple people in DSP who have to “touch” the paperwork at various times throughout the life of the research project.

As antiquated of a system that this was before the pandemic, it would have been useless after COVID-19 hit and employees were told to work away from campus. Fortunately for DSP, a small unit within the Office of the Vice President for Research, Research Information Systems (RIS), which co-reports to UI Information Technology Services, migrated the files and routing process online, to a Work Queue System, before the virus made its appearance.

Led by Director Jose Jimenez, RIS supports OVPR—and the broader research enterprise—by developing technical solutions to help reduce their administrative burden. It works closely with administrative and IT units on campus to deliver and maintain innovative systems that simplify the processes used to track and manage thousands of documents tied to millions of dollars in research funding for hundreds of researchers, scholars, and creative artists.

“Before the pandemic we’d been working on several systems to replace the review systems for DSP: how they review proposals, contracts, and subawards,” Jimenez said. “Along the way, we did a number of things that improved their ability to do that.”

He said the Work Queue System allows various people responsible for managing a research project to access it in tandem, share information with stakeholders, route forms for approval, and attach to the digital record any relevant documentation, including both the body of an email and any attachments that came with it.

Someone can do a National Institutes of Health proposal review, while someone else does a budget review, while someone looks at animal needs for the research protocol,” Jimenez said.

The system was also integrated with UI Workflow and DocuSign (which allows for digital signatures) to further expedite the routing and approval process for awards. As a bonus, the upgrades have allowed DSP to get rid of its Lektriever, which freed up enough physical space to allow for the creation of a small conference room.

The improvements not only benefit grant administrators; they speed up and streamline the process for researchers so they can spend more of their time in labs, libraries, and creative spaces.

DSP Director Wendy Beaver said this arrangement allows for far tighter integration among the UI Grant Accounting Office, the Human Subjects Office, the Office of Conflict of Interest in Research, and the Office of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

“The electronic eDSP system allowed DSP to provide a seamless transition to remote services for campus during the pandemic and to process an increasing volume of transactions over the past few years,” she said. “This was possible because of the efficiencies created with a single electronic system for documentation of review and attachments, providing staff across central offices with simultaneous access to records, and more system integrations with other central offices on campus.”

These and other current, and planned, improvements by RIS fall under the broader umbrella of Electronic Research Administration, or eRA, and are meant to support and enhance effectiveness and efficiency in the management of funding pre-award activities, conflict of interest, the regulation of animal use by researchers, and other research administration.

Another project recently tackled by Jimenez and his team is a more intuitive Animal Research Information System for ordering animals to be used in research projects, and one that puts greater control into the hands of research lab personnel. The previous ordering process, which dates to 2010, required labs to call the Office of Animal Resources (OAR) front desk and verbally repeat their orders twice. Now that the new system is in place, labs are able to draft their orders by selecting from a lab-specific drop-down menu of options appropriate to their research before sending them to OAR for review and routing to the supplier. 

The new system allows labs to order animals 24/7 rather than call the OAR office. This process improvement will benefit OAR administrative staff as well as researchers. 

The UI Medical Radiation Protection Committee (MRPC) reviews research protocols to ensure the safety of human subjects in studies where x-rays, radioisotopes, or lasers are used. PDFs have been used to manage oversight of these activities, but that document format has lots of disadvantages. For thing, it’s not accessible to users with vision challenges. So RIS is flowing that content into an electronic routing system and integrating it with HawkIRB, a fully integrated, web-based system for human subject researchers, Institutional Review Boards (committees that approve human subjects studies), and Human Research Protection Program committees.

“With the new system, the MRPC form will only ask questions related to a particular investigator’s research and calculate; for instance, the radiation planned for the study to generate a precalculated consent statement for the subjects,” Jimenez said.

More improvements are on the drawing table but will depend on future funding and staffing levels, he added.

“Our ultimate goal,” he said, “is to develop a fully unified menu that allows researchers and research administrators to move among the different systems required to take protocols from start to finish without requiring lots of different links and logins.”