A team of administrators and information technology professionals are working to help the University of Saskatchewan jump to the front of the pack of Canadian research universities when it comes to finding, securing, managing and reporting on the more than $200 million in research funding that flows to the university annually.
“If we get this right, we have the opportunity to lead the U15 in this area,” said Susan Blum, director of research services in the Office of the Vice-President Research (OVPR)
Blum is one of the sponsors of the U of S Research Management System (UnivRS) project along with Monisha Shukla, director of applications with Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Kevin Schneider, Special Advisor to the OVPR on ICT. A joint initiative of the Office of the Vice-President Research and ICT, UnivRS is intended to replace the existing set of paper-based and antiquated digital systems.
Vendors vying for the project visited campus this spring, pitching their wares to the project team, research facilitators and faculty researchers. German firm AVEDAS came out on top with their CONVERIS system. In May, the U of S board approved the proposal to buy and implement the system, budgeted to cost $2.6 million to set up and $1.4 million annually to operate and maintain.
“The system has a very nice user interface. Everything is there in front of (the researcher), so they’ll have all their ethics, their contracts, their grants,” Blum said. “We’ve also been working with WSEP (Workplace Safety and Environmental Protection), so if there are any radiation or biosafety considerations, that’s all going to be accessible through one system.”
Few faculty will see the UnivRS interface on their desktops until about next June. Blum explained the vendor needs to come to campus to set up servers and software, plus provide training to the core team that will administer the system. The job of transferring data to UnivRS is expected to take several months, and the system launch must be timed around granting deadlines to ensure faculty have maximum time to become familiar with it.
“For this first year, there’s a lot of work to be done that probably nobody will see,” Blum said. “Servers need to be set up, software installed. Transferring data, dumping data, setting up workflows and so forth – we have to get these foundations down first.”
That said, Blum stressed that a key part of the process is to gather as much input and feedback as possible. Faculty researchers have already volunteered to test-drive the system, and more are welcome. Focus groups are planned and departments may also step up to take UnivRS for a spin to get hands-on experience and provide input.
One important direction from faculty so far is eliminating the need to get physical signatures from various locations on campus for documents such as grant applications.
“There will be electronic approval and electronic signatures. There’ll be no more running around. There’s a huge waste of time on that,” Blum said. “This is a big advantage that will be immediately obvious to faculty.”
UnivRS also promises to make research administration both more efficient and more powerful. For example, data will only need to be entered once, but can be used in a variety of ways.
“This system has really strong analytic capabilities,” Blum said. “So, it could be something simple like ‘who is doing research in this area?’ You would be able to search the system and find out.”
She explained this could be useful for new faculty looking for possible collaborators, to government looking for expertise, and to pursue funding. For example, researchers could use it to assemble a team to respond to special calls for research proposals from national or international funding agencies. UnivRS is also expected to make it much easier for faculty and the university to meet reporting requirements from these agencies.
Faculty feedback also flagged security as a priority, Blum said. She explained UnivRS will be fully secure to meet strict regulations that, for example, govern ethics approvals and clinical trials requirements in health research. Different faculty will have different levels of access. For example, a college dean could log into the system, see what documents were awaiting his or her attention, review and approve them without needing a paper copy.
Over its five-year rollout, Blum said the goal is to integrate UnivRS with other systems such as UniFi.
“We would like to be able to pull that in, so faculty can see budget summaries for their different research projects without having to log into UniFi,” she said. “We want the faculty to have a one stop shop.”