Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Why Pay Research Administrators?

with 2 comments

I’m not actually trying to kill my employment prospects by following up a post on politics with a post on academic politics, its just a side effect of expressing despair and a poor sense of humor (last post) along with mystification (this post).
I worked in a university research office for a few months doing intern-type things, and so have benefited from universities deciding to pay the salaries of the research administrators. But I still can’t figure out why they do. When I walked into the office at my current university and saw all the cubicles, all I could think was “we could hire one more professor for each 2 of these people we fire”. Here are my best guesses so far:

Legally required Bureaucracy:
Some of this is no mystery at all: federal laws require some oversight of research on animals and human subjects. This doesn’t explain why these committees tend to enforce the regulations more strictly than is required- wouldn’t you expect regulators to be very lenient if they were employees of the company then regulate?

Funder-required Bureaucracy
Many funding agencies want the university to oversee the grant, so professors actually use it for what they said they would rather than just getting a new Lexus (or more likely, Prius). Like the federally-required bureaucracy, the intention is to be like chemotherapy: yes, it will kill some good projects, but we hope it will kill more bad ones.

“Pre-award”

The real mystery to me is why the university requires all professors to get permission from research administration when applying for grants. The last time I talked to someone in research administration, he went out of his way to tell me this would be required if I ever applied for a grant, but he never even attempted to explain why, instead only saying “its just one more hoop to jump through”. I have two theories about possible benefits:
Tracking:
The central administration of the university wants to know who is doing research and how much money they are getting. This requirement is a way for them to find out.
Paternalism:
The research administration office has enough knowledge about the grant process that they can help professors improve their chances of winning; professors don’t realize this and so must be required to work with them. This makes sense only for large funders (that the office has experience with) and new professors (who lack their own experience applying). Which suggests the real reason is:

Rent-seeking
People want to get paid, and a make-work job is better than none, so they push to expand the work of their office. Bureaucracies tend to keep expanding: “the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy”. This is especially severe when the organization lacks outside competition forcing it to cut costs, and it is indeed very difficult to start a new university. However, this theory doesn’t explain why administrators have been so successful in expanding their jobs over the last 40 years while professors have not. This trend generally, along with its specific instantiation in research offices, continues to mystify me.

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Written by James Bailey

February 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

2 Responses

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  1. James, I just recently discovered your blog from your posts on facebook, but I have found the posts very informative and quite entertaining. I especially liked this post as I currently work part-time at a large state university in administration at the department level (entry-level accounting stuff, not exactly research administration but I see enough of it nonetheless). With bureaucracy, it seems the question always arises, “is all of this really necessary?” I mostly try to think optimistically, that, “why, yes, what I do does matter, gosh-durn-it!” but then again, “eh, maybe, sometimes, it really doesn’t”.

    My guess on why universities hire the bureaucracy to support research and grants is mainly to keep everybody honest and cover their backsides. Most of the issues I have seen have occurred after the awards have been given and the research starts. I don’t think the researchers and professors intentionally break the rules or attempt to go “around” the grant stipulations, but inevitably, it always seems to be the case (and not even to buy themselves cars or whatever, but just little things, and so often the little things add up to huge things). The job of the bureaucracy then is to make sure all the i’s have dots and all the t’s are crossed so when the projects are closed out the sponsor actually pays the money they promised and it actually went/goes to the right things (and this even starts with the ‘pre-award’ stage – so many i’s and t’s, durn it!).

    It seems like the smaller the school is, the less the bureaucracy would be needed. Our department alone, though, has something in the range of 250 research grants, with some professors having 5 or more awards a piece. With some single awards in the half-million dollar to million dollar or more range, suffice to say: that’s a lot of money to make sure goes where it needs to go.

    Since we are a state-funded institution, though, our bureaucracy has shrunk with across the board cut-backs while our professors and researchers (and projects) have increased, which has led to issues related to correct managing of funds. Not enough internal auditors to watch the money and make sure it goes where it needs to go (before the external auditors come and yank the money – quite more than the slap on the hand). Our researchers are good at research, but the greater majority of them are terrible at finance (*Sigh* if only I worked in the business or *economics* office).

    So, bureaucracy is the “necessary evil” that keeps the money flowing. Hopefully, though, in most cases its more beneficial than not. Reason numero uno from what I have seen for bureaucracies in research funding is to make sure the university doesn’t have to pay for the research themselves. Most grants are not front-end funded. If the stipulations are not met on grants on the back end the sponsor could just walk away and leave the university hanging to pay for the expenses (trust me, this can get *very* costly). Making sure the sponsor pays the full bill on one million dollar grant can save the university from axing bureaucratic positions and help them even to add professorships. Hopefully, bureaucracy helps, even though it seems to always provide a headache. (Tracking and paternalism are definitely top factors, though, outside mandated requirements.)

    PS – Congrats on the new job! Cheers – Don Morie

    Don Morie

    February 24, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    • Good points Don, I will file them under “Funder-required bureaucracy is in fact a really big deal”.

      James Bailey

      February 26, 2014 at 1:17 pm


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