In an effort to streamline the ever-complicated business end of Johns Hopkins' swelling research mass and also to ensure compliance with regulations, the university has recently launched a major divisional review of its research administration practices.
James T. McGill, senior vice president for finance and administration, has appointed a nine-member steering committee that will oversee the work of an eight-member research administration advisory group and an outside consulting firm, Huron. The collective ambition of the three groups is to identify the best research accounting and reporting practices, both at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere, and move the university toward a fully automated system of managing and monitoring grants.
McGill said the university's specific goals are threefold: to improve service to investigators and make their job of administering grants easier, to allow administrative support staff to be more productive and to update existing systems in order to meet all new federal compliance requirements.
Expecting quick results, the advisory group and consulting firm have been charged with producing by mid-June an interim report that will include a series of recommendations.
The advisory group comprises four departmental administration members, one person from Hopkins ITS, a representative of the Controller's Office and two faculty members.
Donna Helm, assistant dean of research administration for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the School of Nursing, has been appointed chair of the steering committee. Other committee members are Ted Poehler, vice provost for research; Gary Ostrander, associate provost for research and associate dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences; Jerry Bridges, university controller; Michael Amey, assistant dean of research administration for the School of Medicine; Cheryl Lee Howard, assistant provost for university projects administration; Francis Bossle, executive director of the Office of Internal Audits for the Johns Hopkins Institutions; Jim Aumiller, director of cost/research accounting in the Controller's Office; and Meg Sonneborn, deputy to the senior vice president for finance and administration.
Helm said that the main impetus for this effort was to better manage what has become something of a leviathan.
Nearly 56 percent of the university's annual revenue, or $1.3 billion, comes from sponsored research activities. In the current fiscal year, there are 3,683 ongoing federally funded research projects in the academic divisions, and more than 300 funded projects at the Applied Physics Laboratory.
Helm said that with so much activity, the odds are increased of something slipping through the cracks.
"What has happened over the years is that the sheer volume of research, plus the number of new federal rules and regulations, has simply exploded," Helm said. "So this effort was not a response to any series of occurrences but more a case of wanting to prevent something from happening in the future. We need to ask if there are things we can do better. Are we vulnerable in ways we don't even know? We are looking for anything that we are not doing as well as can be done. Our goal is to make our processes as tight as we can make them."
The steering committee will meet three times between now and May, while the advisory group will meet four times, once each month. During that period, Huron representatives will meet with various staff members from all the university's research administration offices, and with faculty from individual departments, looking for ways to improve business practices.
Helm said two procedures that likely will be re-examined are cost transfers, meaning transfers to federally funded sponsored accounts from charges previously recorded elsewhere, and effort reporting, which reflects the investigator's allocation of time and funds.
"We want to make sure effort reporting is as tight as it can be and that there is no time or money unaccounted for," she said. "Again, we are looking to improve what is already a remarkable management system given the amount of activity here. We are just making sure there are no holes."
Vice provost Poehler, who is a research professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and previously spent 27 years at APL, said the amount of reporting that researchers are required to do has multiplied exponentially over the years. Faced with this higher level of scrutiny, Poehler said, investigators need enhanced and more facile systems with which to manage their accounts, leading to less cost transfers and more accurate reporting.
"Our whole direction is headed toward an entirely electronic-based system," Poehler said. "We need to be able to provide real-time data, to report to the government electronically and to move everything forward in as expeditious a fashion as possible. Ultimately, these changes will help those people trying to keep track of grants on a micro level, and allow schools to accurately estimate the amount of grant activity at any given point in time."