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Smith invites debate via new academic forum
April 6, 1998

The first Research and Graduate Education Academic Community Forum at the Whetten Graduate Center April 1 focused on the foundation of the Office of Sponsored Programs, but the format was designed to go well beyond a single issue.

"The intent is to provide a forum like this a few times a year," said Bob Smith, vice provost for research and graduate education and dean of the graduate school, who hosted the event. "Our hope is that we can bring specific topics like this out for discussion. But we also want to make this a forum for open discussion of other topics."

Smith circulated a handout detailing the proposed structure for the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP). The office will centralize pre-award and post-award activities under a single organization. Its responsibilities will include grant and contract proposal development, regulatory compliance, contract negotiation, fiscal management and audit activities.

"Consolidating these areas into one office makes eminent sense," Smith said. "It will create a more efficient and service-oriented resource for the faculty, and it will create better relationships between the people in the pre- and post-award areas."

Smith said a national search has been instituted for a director.

He then opened the session to questions. The forum, which drew about 40 people, quickly turned into an often-animated discussion that covered a variety of issues. The single issue that received the most play related to indirect costs associated with grant awards.

In theory, indirect costs are a percentage added onto the dollar amount requested for a specific award. In the case of UConn, current indirect costs are assessed at approximately 40 percent of the awarded value - a figure that is about 9 percent below the indirect costs of most other major universities. So, for instance, if an investigator is awarded $100,000, the funding agency will typically add $40,000 for indirect costs, bringing the total awarded to $140,000.

Some faculty members in attendance were concerned that if the indirect costs assessed by the OSP were to increase by 5 to 10 percent, the amount would not be met by the funding agencies and would result in the shortfall coming out of the awards.

"I believe that if this happens, this money will come out of my research," said Moshe Gai, professor of physics. "This means we are trading research dollars for administration dollars. I do not think that is right."

Smith responded that the increase may not occur at all. "We won't be doing anything until we take an objective view of all the costs. If in fact there is a shortfall, it will have to be addressed."

Even if indirect costs are increased, he added, this does not necessarily mean that the increase will come out of researchers' awards.

Other issues discussed included the frustrations of dealing with the Financial Records System (FRS) and ways to refine proposal writing. Smith indicated that once the OSP was created, there would be periodic meetings between research administrators and university researchers to facilitate trouble-shooting and problem-solving.

The forum lasted more than an hour and the participants continued talking afterward.

"I think this was highly successful," Smith said at the forum's close. "I look forward to the next one."

David Pesci