It was surely an unusual grant proposal. The budget alone was enough to catch Jims eye. Twenty number 2 pencils at three cents each, two trained German shepherds at $1,000 apiece, and one 747 jumbo jet at $10 million. This visionary initiative was a response to the slew of skyjackings in the early 1970s. The plan was to jerk out the overhead baggage compartments in a 747 and replace them with 200-foot glass-bottomed raceways for patrolling German shepherds. By roaming the Plexiglas above the heads of passengers, the shepherds could peer through and review for suspicious behavior. Having been trained to press a release pedal, an alert shepherd would drop down and pounce on the gun toting high-jacker.
Fortunately, dealing with quirky proposals is a rare event for Jim Randolph of DRDA (Division of Research Development and Administration). As an adviser to faculty seeking funding from NIH (National Institutes of Health) and as a confidant of NIH program staff, he is the communication nexus between the University of Michigan and NIH extramural research programs. There is no need for Washington NIH staff to play telephone tag with University of Michigan faculty and staff. For questions large or small, they have but a single telephone number to call. Likewise, U-M faculty know Jim has the answers for vexing questions about NIH grants. If you have a problem concerning NIH, call me before you call your program officer. I want to be the first to be asked a difficult question, he says.
Whether it is before, during, or after the application process, Jim Randolph dispenses advice. And in the high stakes arena of biomedical research, that advice can be crucial. Dispensing sage advice has endeared Jim Randolph to many scientists known for their rapid recoil from encounters that prove uninformative or misleading. As word of his reputation has spread, he also sometimes has found himself as a mediator between fractious faculty. Resolution may come in the form of disarmingly plain advice: Sure you can push it higher, but you wont win. With advice like that, wise faculty fold and move ahead.
Presently it is more difficult for Jim and his colleagues Doreen Graden, Pat Porter, and Wendy Carbary to provide support on a personal basis. Interchanges were easier when they were closer to the ambience of the main campus, where on occasion he and his colleagues would personally deliver mail in order to meet investigators first hand. Contemplating the impending move to Wolverine Towers, he designed the floor layout so that each of his staff could see two windows. He hopes these brighter and more spacious appointments will help compensate for the loss of Central Campus interchanges.
Faculty, green and seasoned alike, need information on burgeoning regulations. For the routine question like, What is the current NIH definition of a piece of equipment?, the E-mail address nihjim is a good route. Otherwise call. But dont get too chatty, there is a long line of others waiting with their questionsabout 40-80 people every day! If you call, you wont hear the secretary say, and what this is about? Nor will you be flung into a nest of PC-tel options: If you have overspent your grant, press 1; if you think a giant sucking sound is your indirect costs disappearing, press 2; if you cant locate your clergyman to sign the I am not dead, debarred, delinquent, deported, or departed disclaimer, press 3 ... More than likely you will get Jim promptly.
These are the times when investigators feel inundated by a widening stream of rules promulgated to purify science. To faculty concerns about the lengthening lead time to submit an NIH grant application, the response may be, Well, just plan ahead! But as Jim further realizes, the cliché plan ahead paradoxically implies a plan for the unforeseeable. Good science operates at the cutting edge, at the information frontier. Sure, you could give yourself two months of lead time to meet deadlines exactly, but in fast moving fields you wouldnt be submitting a competitive, cutting edge proposal. Nor would it reflect the investigators most recent progress. As investigators slog through the proliferating rules and compose the pages of written explanations required just to gain permission to submit an application, some end up submitting a not-quite-complete application to DRDA. About 25 percent of NIH applications from faculty are submitted to DRDA with covering instructions to hold the application pending: a delayed equipment price quote, a missing letter of support from a colleague, a crucial piece of preliminary data, and so forth. Administrative staff are understandably stressed when forced to rush to get applications out. Randolph understands this. Nonetheless, he advises his people not to become peeved, as faculty are generally doing their best. Some efforts are stalled by the sudden interjection of higher priority tasks. Distraught students, excused absences, or sick family can cause delay (Please, Lord, make my traumas timely.). One scientist discreetly held his tongue to protect the sensitivities of a staff member who was complaining of delay, lest the clipped words come tumbling out, Next time Ill ask my father to die at a more convenient time. Other delays are in the science itself. Without this preliminary data, I cant convince the reviewers the project is feasible.
Nonetheless, Jim notes that if faculty are able to finish their application a week in advance (actually two weeks given the aggregate lead times added by chairs and deans), it gives him and his staff time to proof it for completeness and accuracy. Is the table of contents accurate, is the pagination proper, is the appendix in place, are budgets accurately calculated, and are budget justifications likely to pass muster? Jim and his colleagues call the investigator when flaws that should be corrected are spotted. Now, that is real service!
Compared with other universities, he thinks DRDAs procedures are among the most protective of faculty time. For example, cumbersome budget requirements abound at many other institutions. Centralization at the U-M allows the DRDA staff to specialize in NIH or NSF. In contrast, by using a mini-DRDA for each unit, some universities force investigators to depend upon shallow advice from several jacks-of-all-trades and masters-of-none. According to the director of DRDA, Alan Steiss, the intent in ongoing discussions of greater financial independence for each of the U-M schools and colleges (Responsibility Center Management), is to retain a centralized DRDA.
Randolph thinks faculty could improve service at Michigan if they reviewed DRDA from time to time. He would also like to have more input from faculty who serve on NIH review panels, as he depends upon such updates from insiders. As an aid to other applicants, he would like to have the U-M establish a file of reviews or pink sheets to provide insight into generic features of applications that draw praise or criticism. Faculty could consult these roses and roadapples to improve their applications.
Jim points out that grants are increasingly being perceived as contracts. A contractor is obligated to produce a specified product, regardless. An applicant for a grant lays out specific aims. But as research progresses it may be sensible to shift ones course, and even veer, to follow a more significant development. Directions should change if investigators are trying to maximize their impact by pursuing the most significant findings. Roentgens examination of electron discharges was deflected by the discovery of X-rays. Salk was diverted from seeking a cure for cancer to enter the path that led to a vaccine against polio. Grants are not contracts, Randolph says.
Weekends are spent away from the phone on 16 rustic acres northwest of Chelsea. Here on these rolling green hills Randolph and his family of landscaping mavens tend to perennial gardens and fruit trees scattered about an undulating lawn. Thankfully by Monday he is restored and ready to help us again!
Professor of Biology
On Open Meetings and Active Faculty Advocacy
In the July 18, 1994, Faculty Perspectives, Professor Richard Bailey criticized many elements of faculty governance. Among several factual errors in his article, Bailey said, in a surprising development, it (SACUA) opened its meetings to The Ann Arbor News. SACUA meetings have always been open to the public. Bailey argues that meetings in general should be closed, citing problems of openness in the presidential selection process. However, I do not believe SACUA meetings should be closed. If we, as faculty, were to begin to deliberate in secret, we could hardly ask for more openness among administrators, including more consultation with faculty.
Bailey says that some SACUA members have taken the view that a continuous assault on the Executive Officers is the best way to make faculty governance work. He then equates that to active faculty advocacy, a phrase I have used in addressing Senate Assembly on the proper role I see for faculty governance. I reject that equation. I specifically do not believe in a continuous assault, or any kind of assault, on Executive Officers, or on anyone, for that matter. I do believe in insisting on fair treatment for all faculty, and insisting on faculty input on major University decisions affecting faculty. I believe in criticism of the administration when those things do not occur, and on praise when they do occur.
Governance in open societies can be troublesome and inefficient. It is indeed problematic that outside listeners may generate distortion in the retelling of what they hear, and safeguards for individual privacy are difficult to sustain. But the divisiveness generated by closed meetings is not a solutionand especially not for this institution in this critical time. It is a time to open up even more planning meetings so that faculty, staff, students, and administrators, all of us, feel we are participants in plans for our destinies and for the future of the University. Someone has to make the decisions, but they will be all the better if adequately detailed alternatives have been previously sifted, even dissected, by those with a stake in the outcome. Active faculty advocacy speaks to inclusion. It means sharing and exchanging ideas with administrators in advance of
crucial decisions. We are moving in the right direction. I look forward to more openness, not less.
George J. Brewer
Professor of Human Genetics and Internal Medicine
Faculty PerspectivesA Forum for the Expression of Diverse Faculty Viewpoints
The Editorial Advisory Board invites participation in Faculty Perspectives. Faculty Perspectives is a forum for University of Michigan faculty to present: advice, concerns, praise, peccadilloes, recommendations, or other sage observations. The acceptance rate has been high for clearly written material. We can most easily accommodate lengths up to 3.5 pages, double spaced. Please sign your submission and give your University title and telephone/fax. Normally we identify authorship. Under special circumstances you may ask that your name be withheld. Submit a double-spaced typewritten copy and, if possible a disk, preferably in MS Word. Fall publication dates for Faculty Perspectives in the University Record are: Oct. 17, Nov.14, and Dec. 12.
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