A new era of research grant management

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For any research-intensive university, winning an externally funded research grant is cause for celebration. After all, it’s the financial support bestowed by grants that enables research related spending to not only continue, but to expand. These grants are the lifeblood of a research-intensive university. But equally important as winning those grants is administering and managing them.

Without the proper infrastructure to ease the administrative work that goes into managing research grants, each new grant can actually increase a university’s operating cost and overburden the administration staff supporting these efforts. That is why a proper grant management system is crucial, and is something that Singapore Management University (SMU) is committed to realising.

On 19 June 2020, SMU launched the Research Grant Management module of the Integrated Research Information System (IRIS). This is a digital platform which allows Principal Investigators (PIs), Grant Administrators in Schools and Centres, Finance Office staff, and Office of Research & Tech Transfer staff to plan, track, manage and report the administrative aspects of grant management in an end-to-end manner.

A suite of three systems to-date

“IRIS aims to digitally transform the way research administrative support processes are managed at SMU,” said Mr. Lau Kai Cheong, Chief Information Officer and Vice President of SMU’s Office of Integrated Information Technology Services (IITS).

“With our new grants management module at its core, the full suite of IRIS modules will be able to jointly provide SMU and its stakeholders a holistic view of the research activities being undertaken across the university,” Mr. Lau added.

The very earliest discussions about the concept for an IRIS-like suite of research support systems were initiated back in 2012 by IITS in collaboration with the Office of Research & Tech Transfer (ORTT), SMU Libraries, and the Provost’s Office. It took several years to clarify the concept, define the scope, work out initial requirements, and go through vendor procurement evaluations and contracting. The first two IRIS modules launched were for Research Publications and for Faculty CV in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

The recently launched Research Grant Management module is the third IRIS module. All of the IRIS modules share the goal of further integrating research administration and increasing the productivity of SMU’s researchers and administrative staff.

Professor Steven Miller, Professor Emeritus of Information Systems at SMU (and former Vice Provost of Research), is in agreement about the importance of having a good research grant management system in place. He commented, “It is obviously very important for our university to bring in larger amounts of externally funded research grant awards and contracts. What we also realised years back is that SMU must have an equally strong emphasis on concurrently making it easier and more productive for our PIs and administrative staff to do the back-end work required to support these grants. This is why SMU must have a good information system for supporting this type of administrative work. And this is why it is so important that we were finally able to launch the Research Grant Management module of IRIS.”

A commercial product substantially enhanced for Singapore’s national needs and for SMUThe Research Grant Management module of IRIS is an enterprise application software system implemented on-premise at SMU with seamless integration to SMU’s key financials and human resources systems. It operates on high-availability servers to ensure continuous uptime and accessibility, and utilises SMU’s in-depth cybersecurity setup and data encryption to assure data security.

The software product vendor for SMU’s Research Grant Management module is Polus Solutions, a specialised provider of Electronic Research Administration (ERA) applications. Polus Solutions has developed custom grant management and related research administration solutions for Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Polus also provides ongoing maintenance and support to both the MIT’s Coeus and the Kuali-Coeus open source ERA applications, for the research grant administration application supported by these consortiums. Universities using MIT’s Coeus include Johns Hopkins University, Purdue University, Vanderbilt University and Brown University. MIT and Tufts University engage Polus for Kuali-Coeus grant management application support. The founder of Polus Solutions, Mr. Sabari Nair, has been developing Electronic Research Administration solutions for over 25 years, and has served as a consultant for ERA solution technical design and architecture to MIT over this entire time period. Mr. Nair was the technical architect and development manager for the Coeus consortium for over 10 years and has worked on Coeus implementations at many consortium member universities like State University of New York (SUNY), Northeastern University, and Johns Hopkins university.

“Our discussions with SMU were highly engaging and solution-driven, with the core objective being to deliver maximum productivity to the SMU user community,” said Mr. Deep Singhania, Polus Solutions’ Asia Managing Director. “The SMU team showed a high degree of commitment to ensure that we would deliver a system with the necessary functionality and flexibility to meet the national needs of Singapore’s funding agencies, and SMU’s specific internal needs.”

“We made many new adjustments to our ERA platform to fit the Singaporean market,” added Mr. Sabari Nair, founder and CEO of Polus Solutions. “For example, the Grant Call and Proposal Evaluation functionalities were built according to SMU’s specifications, which are based on Singapore’s national requirements. Compared to all the deployments I have worked on in the United States, Singaporean universities have a unique requirement of bringing in expenditure data from financial systems back to the research system, and addressing this was one of the challenging and interesting features that we implemented for SMU.

“Even after the go-live deployment date in June, SMU, Polus and Nityo Infotech, the supporting systems integration company, continue to work together on further refining the research grant administration module, based on the incoming user feedback, and also based on items we knew we still needed to address at the time of launch”, said Professor Miller. “Jointly, the SMU support team and the Polus and Nityo teams are working on fine tuning system performance, and on getting more of the users comfortable with using the Research Grants Management module as part of their everyday work.”

Two months into the launch of the Research Grant Management module, Mr. Lau is positive about what it means for IRIS and SMU as a whole.

“I am confident that the new Research Grants Management module will realise the digital transformation we have set forth,” Mr. Lau said. “With data flowing seamlessly across the systems, we will be seeing significant and welcome gains in productivity, efficiencies and user experiences.”

Both Professor Miller and Mr. Lau note that the deployment of the Research Grant Administration module, along with the other IRIS modules, will support SMU’s ongoing effort to increase its annual receipt of new external research awards as well as to increase the annual research spending per year based on both current as well as prior awards. This will help SMU to scale its research in both pace and volume without being tied down by manual administrative tasks associated with managing all of the grants secured.

A fourth module in the works

Now that the Research Grant Management module has been launched, IITS is already working with key internal stakeholders on the next one. A fourth system, the Institutional Review Board module, will appear prior to mid-year 2021, and will support IRB administration and workflows related to IRB application submission, review, tracking and reporting.

As for Professor Miller, he’s already thinking far into SMU’s future. “As SMU continues to grow, there will be a need for other types of research administration support systems beyond the first wave of these four IRIS modules,” he said. “A few years from now, or even sooner, I envision that our SMU community of researchers and administrators will come up with practical and justifiable suggestions for new modules.”

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