Results of Survey to Assess Administrative Burden of Carrying Out Sponsored Programs

Background and Purpose of Survey

In May 2015, the Office of Sponsored Programs, working closely with the Vice President for Research, sent a survey to all active MIT PIs to learn about the most burdensome and frustrating aspects of securing and managing research funding at MIT. Our goals were to:

  1. learn what PIs think are the most frustrating and time consuming aspects of carrying out sponsored programs, and
  2. seek PI feedback as to how we might address these issues. 

This topic was raised in previous surveys, specifically, MIT’s FY2012 Faculty and Staff Quality of Life Survey and the Federal Demonstration Partnership’s (FDP) 2012 Faculty Workload Survey. Key results are noted below:

From MIT’s FY2012 survey on quality of life:

  •  30% of faculty respondents reported “extensive” stress in securing support for research
  • 22% of faculty reported “extensive” stress in managing their research groups or projects

From FDP’s 2012 Faculty Workload Survey

  • Faculty respondents reported that they spend “about 43% of their research time doing administration”. At MIT, where faculty spend on average about half of their time on research, this would mean that faculty spend about 22% of their overall time on administration related to managing federally sponsored programs (43% of 50% = 22% of overall time)
  • PI respondents said that about half of their time spent on administration (~11% of total time) was spent on proposal preparation and meeting sponsor reporting requirements.

The bottom line is that OSP and the VPR wanted to learn about the frustrations of our PIs and what we can do to help.

Who responded?

The survey was sent to 921 currently active PIs; we received 174 responses (19%). The chart below shows the breakdown of respondents by Unit/DLC.
Click on image to see full-size version.

PI Survey Graph

What our PIs told us…

PIs were given a list of sixteen areas of research administration and asked to choose the two to three areas that they found most frustrating and/or time-consuming. For each area that they checked, they were then taken to a list of more detailed questions about that area; additionally, they were given the opportunity to describe their difficulties in more detail, and to make suggestions for improvements. See the full survey.

The charts below show the key areas that PIs found most frustrating and time-consuming:
Click on image to see full-size version.

See the full survey results.

Some observations:

  • “Managing grant funds” was the most frustrating function listed, and also third on the list of most time consuming tasks. Managing budget to actual expenses and relating expenses to project tasks are the main issues here.
  • Proposals were listed as the most time consuming task, and second on the list of frustrating tasks. PIs identified issues with adhering to sponsor-specific requirements, adhering to the 5-day deadline, finding sources of funding, and completing forms / adhering to the solicitation as the top issues.
  • Effort reporting was listed third in terms of most frustrating, and fourth as most time consuming. The requirement to do this is based on federal regulations, which have recently changed. MIT will be exploring better ways of addressing the need to verify personnel costs on sponsored funds.
  • Frustrations regarding managing personnel include supervising staff and students, hiring and evaluating people, and dealing with visa issues.
  • Finally, non-federal negotiations are a large point of frustration for PIs, specifically OSP and TLO-type issues, though PIs reported spending little time, overall, engaging in the activity.

While MIT PIs did not participate in the FDP survey, there are several similarities regarding the need to spend significant amounts of time on managing finances, developing proposals, managing personnel, and meeting federal effort reporting requirements.

What are we doing with what we’ve learned?

As soon as the results were compiled, they were reviewed with the managers in OSP, then shared with the Vice President for Research and other key stakeholders. In OSP, we decided to start with low-hanging fruit:

  • See new and improved proposal checklists, including those pesky sponsor-specific requirements for the various federal sponsors
  • See the updated Quick Guide for PIs for brief summaries and advice on the most common issues that PIs face on a regular basis, including help with proposal development, explaining the sponsored projects budgets and allowability of costs on various types of sponsored awards.
  • We introduced the PI Dashboard & Award Budgets in KC, both of which are efforts to give PIs visibility into their finances and comparisons between budget and actual spending
  • We’re fighting back against federal sponsor variability, via FDP, COGR, and other institutional alliances, advocating for simplification of the federal regulations and harmonization of sponsor forms across all funding sponsors
  • See the latest report from NAS on making the most efficient use of shrinking federal funding by eliminating and streamlining administrative requirements
  • With regard to Non-Federal negotiations, we are:
    • tracking and monitoring the status of each negotiation, and actively intervening to escalate where necessary;
    • implementing a periodic review of the most difficult negotiations, including both OSP and TLO negotiators to identify issues and strategize on ways to accelerate the negotiations;
    • introducing a few select negotiation techniques on a systematic basis (such as OSP/PI/Sponsor kick-off meetings; and setting explicit deadlines and process guidelines with Sponsors);
    • reviewing and revising the standard sponsored research agreement templates (with guidance from TLO and OGC); and
    • actively seeking feedback and suggestions from PIs and DLCs involved in the more difficult negotiations.

Our next step is to follow up with PIs that had particularly interesting and useful suggestions for process improvements and more effective resources. If you would like to take part in these discussions or have other suggestions please contact Suzanne Pettit in OSP.