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Research Report

Unpacking university research office structures

June 22, 2020

Research often composes a large part of an institution’s ability to successfully act on its overall mission and more immediate strategic goals. In theory, research offices aim to provide efficient customer service to their PIs, while leveraging new technologies that catalyze innovation. However, offices today must address unpredictable funding shifts, complex regulations, and increased competition from other schools for grant funding. These challenges expand and diversify the scope of a research office’s work.

To tackle these diverse challenges and improve university research functionality, leaders often look to optimize the organizational structure of their office. A smart organizational structure will help offices streamline processes, improve communication, and designate activity ownership.

Below, we have included insights on key trends we have seen in our analyses of university research office organizational structures.

Chief Research Officer (CRO) reporting varies by institution size and sector

The Chief Research Officer (CRO), or Vice President/Chancellor/Provost for Research, is an important position in both public and private research universities. The role may vary in form but is responsible for a leading variety of functions integral to research activity on campus. 

Generally speaking, CROs at large public research institutions report directly to the President or Chancellor (e.g., University of Michigan, University of Pittsburgh), while heads of research at large private research institutions tend to report to the Provost instead (e.g., Johns Hopkins University,Harvard University). CROs at smaller research universities typically report to the Provost, whether public (e.g., Stephen F. Austin State University) or private (e.g., Adelphi University, Drake University).

However, these trends do not always hold true – many well-known research institutions utilize a different reporting structure. For example, the CRO at one large public institution, UNC Chapel Hill, reports to both the Chancellor and the Provost. While few surveys explore the CRO position in depth, one indicated that, at public research institutions, about 70 percent of research leaders report to the President, while around 25 percent report to the Provost or Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Similar exceptions exist for private institutions. For instance, the Vice President for Research at Duke University reports jointly to the Provost and the Chancellor for Health Affairs.

University research offices house common risk management and research development functions

Partners often ask which offices to house under the CRO, but we see clearer trends when instead considering common functions or responsibilities of university uesearch offices. In other words, since similar functions may live in different offices at different institutions, it is most helpful to analyze the placement of specific functions, instead of general offices. While exact responsibility portfolios vary, common functions housed within research offices include:

  • Institutional Review Board (about 96 percent of offices)
  • Pre-Award Research/Sponsored Programs (about 95 percent of offices)
  • Research Development (about 93 percent of offices—likely higher today)
  • Institutional Animal Care and Uses (about 90 percent of offices)

Leverage a hybrid model of centralization to maximize efficiency

Research office centralization varies tremendously, and without a clear “best practice” for centralization, research offices must confront tradeoffs when determining which functions to centralize. Our research demonstrates that for centrally managed functions, PIs often complain of a lack of personalized support. On the other hand, with decentralized functions (i.e., unit-managed functions), PIs primarily complain about a lack of functional-area expertise among staff and duplicative processes. So, how have institutions addressed what seems to be a lose-lose situation?

In an attempt to strike a balance between centralized and unit-managed functions, research administrators at the University of Notre Dame serve on three-person teams (Pre-award, Post-award, and Grants Accounting representation) that are managed centrally, but responsible for supporting a specific portfolio of faculty. Using this model, PIs gain more personalized service, with the added benefits of organization and control from a central function.

The University of Pennsylvania uses a similar model, but limits centralized staff members’ time in colleges to two to three days a week, reinforcing research administrators as central staff members. This helps staff members avoid other, non-research, work accumulated by spending more time in the college.