Grants are the lifeblood of all research universities in the US. Grants support research and defray some of the many indirect research costs across the institute. Yet identifying, applying for and winning funding is becoming increasingly challenging. Research administrators are facing numerous obstacles, including competition for grants, growing compliance requirements – especially in biomedical research – and funding international collaborations.

Daniel Calto recently joined Elsevier, and prior to that, he was Director of Research Strategy and Senior Director of Research Administration at Columbia University in New York, where he was using grants data to drive improvements in research revenue.

To help research administrators manage this increasing complexity while still being able to respond accurately and rapidly to funding opportunities, Calto worked on benchmarking, identifying historical trends and increasing institutional ranking among peers.

Gathering the data

“Benchmarking in the United States has not relied heavily on bibliometrics, although we did start using bibliometric tools to help structure some of our decision-making data, and I expect this approach to continue,” says Calto.

Fragmented, non-standard data is really the Achilles' heel for many research institutes

“Beyond simple benchmarking, we did deeper investigations, such as SWOT analyses. At Columbia, for example, we discovered that we were very strong in applying for training grants, but were lagging behind our peers when it came to funding for large program projects,” he explains. SWOT information and similar analytical interpretations are key to what grant administrators and research institute senior management need in order to pursue better strategies.

As there is no central funding database in the United States, Calto had to gather data from the US’s two biggest funding sources – the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) – as well as from the many smaller societies and foundations that make funding available.

Calto believes that while he had a lot of success and offered his institution’s administrators some insight into performance, there is still much to do. “Comprehensive data is our greatest challenge. Fragmented, non-standard data is really the Achilles’ heel for many research institutes. For instance, each funding body uses different cataloguing systems, some use annual data, others not.

“And with globalization, we are also dealing with radically different funding systems – the way research is funded in the United States is not the same as in other parts of the world,” he adds.

Making indicators work for you

According to Calto, to correctly interpret any data, it is essential to bring in the qualitative context. This involves conversations with scientists and funding agencies, and a good general knowledge of the research market.

“I like bibliometric and funding data because they are a fair and objective way to rank people, departments and institutes. However, databases are never complete and they must be interpreted carefully. Most department chairs also take into account the importance of originality and innovative research, even though they might not fit into standard metrics,” he explains.

Calto recently joined Elsevier as Director of Product Management for Performance and Planning in the Academic and Government Products Group, where he is now working to develop the very tools that he would have appreciated when he was at Columbia.

“It’s possible to do some very good analyses using bibliometric databases, but for the really detailed information, research institutes now have to allocate resources, such as people and time. This is why dedicated tools that allow senior management to see research performance at a glance are so critical,” he explains.

With access to good data and the tools necessary to carry out efficient analysis, research institutes can ensure that they are applying for the right funding at the right time, with as little internal stress possible. Eventually, this approach will optimize results and reduce missed opportunities.

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