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Researchers in Administration

Tomorrow's Research

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The article below looks at the role of scientists in the acquiring and

awarding of research grants. The examples are from the life sciences,

however, much of what is described applies in good measure to the physical

and social sciences, and engineering. It is taken from The Scientist - The

News Journal of the Life Scientist,

[], 14[22]:28, Nov. 13, 2000?

Copyright 2000, The Scientist, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Research


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There's much more to it than the proverbial paper pushing

By Karen Young Kreeger


Much of the administration of the scientific endeavor can be neatly placed

into two groups: those who work at acquiring the money, and those who work

at bestowing the money. Mostly at universities and colleges, the acquirers

direct offices of sponsored research, large research departments, or can be

vice presidents of research or graduate schools. The bestowers are primarily

program officers at such government agencies as the National Institutes of

Health and the National Science Foundation and private and corporate


The group bestowing money includes Lisa Brooks, a program officer in the

division of extramural research at the National Human Genome Research

Institute, who jokes that on a day-to-day basis, "I'm on the phone a lot and

I organize meetings." Seriously, her responsibilities, along with the

hundreds of other grant administrators across NIH, include handling grant

applications from the time they come through the door to when they're

awarded. Brooks is in charge of two programs--genetic variation and genome

informatics--within NHGRI.

The best aspect of her job, says Brooks, is trying to figure out where the

science of her programs needs to go. For example, the genetic variation

program deals with SNPs--single nucleotide polymorphisms. By interacting

with principal investigators (PIs) at professional meetings, they determined

a common set of research samples was needed for SNP-related projects. From

this, a targeted Request for Application (RFA) of grants could be prepared

to meet this research need.

Brooks, who was in the ecology and evolutionary biology department at Brown

University for seven years, was on review panels for NSF. They eventually

asked her to take on a program officer stint. She stayed for two and half

years. Then three and a half years ago, she moved to her current position

because it was a good fit between her experience and growing interest in

human gene mapping and NIH's


Administrators say there's no one way to systematically find a job in this

area, although some positions are advertised on the Web sites of

foundations, professional societies, and government agencies. Many note that

the experiences and skills needed are a broad educational experience,

curiosity, and the ability to follow up. Most positions, especially program

officers at foundations and agencies require a Ph.D. both for credibility

and to be able to make informed judgments about the direction of research.

Others say that on both sides of the administration of the scientific

endeavor, it helps to have already landed a grant. And most important, agree

administrators, is having good people skills and to be a good listener.


According to Carl Dieffenbach, associate director of the basic science

program in the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and

Infectious Diseases, there are two main categories of administrators at NIH.

Some, who review and write summaries of grant proposals, work in the Center

for Scientific Review (which used to be called the Division of Research

Grants). Another group consists of program administrators, officially called

health science administrators (HSAs), like Brooks, who shepherd grants

through the NIH grant cycles. When a grant arrives at NIH's doorstep, it's

assigned to the appropriate administrator and to an outside review group.

These are separate processes. After internal review, the appropriate

institute takes charge of the process. After external review, HSAs work

directly with PIs to answer their questions and interpret suggestions given

by the review panel.

Dieffenbach supervises HSAs in three branches: epidemiology, pathogenesis,

and targeted interventions. In all, there are 52 HSAs in the AIDS division

of NIAID, which does not include medical officers who oversee the safety

aspects of clinical trials. The overall role of medical officers, says James

McNamara, chief of the pediatric medicine branch for NIAID's Division of

AIDS, is to be a "dispassionate liaison" between industry, the PIs, NIH, and

the Food and Drug Administration to help move clinical trials safely


One of Dieffenbach's main responsibilities is to stimulate research in his

areas of responsibility. For example, in the area of AIDS pathogenesis in

humans, he helps to identify opportunities for research on reservoirs for

the AIDS virus. Big questions here are: Where is HIV hiding? What cofactors

affect the levels of HIV in a reservoir? In a nutshell, he writes RFAs of

proposals, to state to researchers that his program has a strong interest in

a particular area. Again, these needs are identified by reading widely and

keeping close contact with PIs.

Irene Eckstrand, a health science administrator for the National Institute

of General Medical Sciences, says what she loves best about her job is that

she gets to "work with the smartest researchers in the country," and what

she likes least is reading progress reports that aren't well written. In

early 2001 she will have been at NIH as an HSA for 20 years. Eckstrand has a

Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and genetics, but after her two-year postdoc,

she and her husband, who is also a scientist, had to contend with the

"two-body" problem of working couples. They both began to look for

administrative jobs so they could live in the same state. Her husband,

Stephen Eckstrand, is a program officer at the Department of Energy.

Grants administration is similar in the private sector. Victoria McGovern, a

program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in Durham, N.C., says she

also feels as if she's making a difference in the direction of the science

she covers. She oversees grants in infectious diseases, toxicology, and

pharmacology. McGovern says that the "most fun" part of her job is calling

new awardees and giving them the good news about winning a grant.

Administratively her duties include handling the yearly cycle of the grants

process, moderating committees of reviewers, and dealing with the board of

directors so grants reflect the fund's mission. She also answers

grant-writers' questions and stays current in her fields of responsibility

by reading widely and going to meetings.


Research administration at universities covers a lot of ground, from

accountants to zoologists. Lynne Chronister, director of the office of

sponsored projects at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and immediate

past president of the Society of Research Administrators (SRA), notes that,

according to a five-year-old SRA survey, about 20-25 percent of its members

are science Ph.D.s. They work in government, universities, and private

foundations, with titles such as grant administrator, compliance officer,

vice president of research, and director of sponsored research.

Victoria Molfese, the current SRA president and former director of the

office of sponsored research at the Southern Illinois University in

Carbondale, says that a minority of directors of sponsored research offices

have Ph.D.s, some have M.B.A.s, and others have B.S. degrees, but directors

at larger universities tend to have terminal degrees.

For this end of research administration, says Molfese, who is now the

director of the Early Childhood Research Center at the University of

Louisville in Kentucky, "It's difficult if you haven't been a grant-getter

yourself." She adds that "You need a good idea of what goes on in the

primary funding agencies, as well as an understanding of intellectual


Many Ph.D.s, says Chronister, have come to administrative positions via

graduate education offices: "Many get tired of teaching and research and are

attracted to the security and better salaries." Generally vice presidents or

deans of research handle policy as it relates to research--for example

issues in the misconduct of science--while offices of sponsored research

handle the implementation of grant policy.

Kenneth Hunter, vice president for research at the University of Nevada,

Reno, and dean of its graduate school, has been in these positions for the

past 11 years, but he will be going back to his microbiology research

full-time when the new dean comes on late this year. In his capacity as vice

president, he has two broad responsibilities, which are common with others

in his position: the promotion of research on his campus and the

coordination of the administration activities for research. The latter

responsibility covers the offices of Sponsored Projects, Grants and

Contracts, Human Subjects Research, Technology Liaison, and Environmental

Health and Safety. To raise the visibility of research at UN-Reno, Hunter

works with legislators and business leaders to advance the

value and importance of research and spends time in Washington, D.C.

interacting with congressional delegates from his state as well as funding

agencies staff, among other responsibilities.

After 11 years, he feels as if he has done what he's set out to do and now

has some burning research questions that need his full-time attention.

Hunter mentions that most science colleagues at his level of research

administration tend to go back to the faculty more readily than other senior

administrators because they keep active in the lab. "You can't get a

vice-president-level position if you don't have some research credentials,

and most still keep their hand inthe research," he explains.

No matter where you find yourself in the business of the scientific process,

Molfese notes that administrators of science at large are facilitators above

all else. "We don't want to get in the way of>research," she emphasizes.


Department of Energy

Federal Jobs Digest

National Institutes of Health

National Science Foundation

Society of Research Administrators

National Council of University Administrators

National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges


Karen Young Kreeger ( is a contributing editor for The