Guidance for Managing a Research Grant

Articles providing guidance for managing a research grant.

Maija L. Selby-Harrington | Patricia L. Donat | Heddy D. Hubbard


The information presented in this article was originally published in Nursing Research (Vol. 42, Number 1, January/February 1993). This work was supported by the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR), now the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Grant Number 5 R01 HS 06507.


Contents

Overview
The Waiting Period
Responding to the Scientific Review
Planning for Implementation
Financial Management
Personnel Management
Additional Measures for Quality Control
Adhering to a Timeline
Authorship
Communication
The Continuation Application
Preparing for Future Grants
References


Overview

While many resources are available to assist researchers in obtaining funding (e.g., Bauer, 1984; Tornquist & Funk, 1990), little information is available to help them manage a grant after it is awarded. This article provides practical guidance to help newly funded principal investigators (PIs) manage Federal research grants. Although the focus is on Federal grants, the administrative issues considered are pertinent to privately funded research as well.

Before writing a proposal, contact a program official (PO) at the potential funding agency to ascertain that the research is of interest to the agency. Then, a month before submission, alert the PO to your upcoming grant application and provide your institutional affiliation and the title of the proposal. When you send the application, include a cover letter clearly indicating the funding agency to which the proposal should be directed and call the PO again to confirm this information. The PO can help ensure that the proposal is routed correctly. Without presubmission contact, an application may be assigned inadvertently to an agency other than the one for which it was intended.

The groundwork for implementing a grant must be laid before applying for funding to ensure that the organizations, agencies, and individuals affected by the grant will support its implementation. Commitments must be obtained from your own institution and from collaborating agencies so that resources needed to carry out the grant will be available when the grant is funded. Letters of commitment must be included in the grant application to assure the funding agency that the necessary resources will be provided. These resources include personnel, office space, furniture, telephones, and other items that the funding agency may not provide, as well as access to research subjects and data sources. Suggestions for gaining commitments for such resources are provided by Selby, Riportella-Muller, and Farel (1992).

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The Waiting Period

Many months may elapse from the time that commitments are made until a grant is funded. Keep the involved individuals apprised of progress during the waiting period. After submitting the grant application, send a letter of appreciation and a copy of the grant abstract to each person who facilitated grant submission by making a commitment to the project. In the letter, reconfirm the earliest possible start-up date and include a reminder that many first-time grant applications require revision and resubmission, which postpones the start-up time.

Let the involved individuals know when they can expect to hear from you again and encourage them to contact you if they have questions. Remember, they, not just the PI, are affected by the funding agency's decision. Check in periodically with them to see if any adjustments will be needed because of changes in personnel or policies at their institutions. For example, you may need to gain the support of a new official who replaced one who made a commitment to your research. Adjustments can be made more easily during the waiting period than in the rush to initiate a funded project.

If you have questions about your application before the scientific review is completed, contact the funding agency's scientific review administrator rather than the PO. This arrangement is based on the need to separate the PO from the scientific review process. After the review, you may again contact the PO directly.

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Responding to the Scientific Review

When you receive the summary statements from the scientific review, hold a debriefing session with your investigative team and discuss the chances for funding with the PO, as well as with seasoned PIs. If the priority score is poor or borderline, it may be advisable to submit a releases application immediately to avoid missing an entire review cycle. If you decide to resubmit your application, let the PO know.

Use feedback from the the scientific review to improve the application. Be sure to address each criticism even if you believe it is unwarranted. If there was a misunderstanding about what you meant in the original proposal, it is your responsibility to provide clarification.

You will also need to enlist the support of all your collaborators in the resubmission process, as you will need updated letters of agreement. You may need to work out logistical details associated with scientific revisions, such as an increase in sample size. that may require the recruitment of additional research sites.

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Planning for Implementation

If the priority score indicates that funding is likely, plan for implementation. The official notice of funding may arrive only weeks or days before the scheduled start-up date. To avoid problems, take time before start-up to work out logistical issues with each individual or agency involved, such as mechanisms to conduct interventions or collect data.

Reaffirm institutional review board approvals for all performance sites. Meet with your coinvestigators to update them, review the grant timeline, and reconfirm and document roles and expectations. Discuss difficulties anticipated in meeting grant responsibilities and establish open communication to handle problems that may arise. With your own administration, make plans to prepare the designated office space for occupancy. You may need to attend to details such as obtaining furniture and deciding on the placement of telephone outlets.

You will need to recruit, interview, and select key staff (at a minimum, the project director) in accordance with institutional and equal employment opportunity regulations and with the understanding that hiring is contingent on receipt of the grant award. If you laid the groundwork with the personnel office prior to grant submission, you will be prepared for these tasks. If not, you may experience frustration and delays, since the institutional processes for creating positions may be lengthy and cumbersome.

You also may need to make specific arrangements to ensure that project activities scheduled early in the grant period can be carried out. For example, if Month 2's tasks require printed materials, reconfirm the printer's cost estimate obtained for the proposal (or, if required by your institution, obtain current competitive bids) and tentatively schedule printing for Month 1.

The grant may require budget adjustments. Officially, the budget is negotiated between the grant management office of the Federal agency and the business office of the PI's institution. In practice, the PI usually develops the budget adjustments and provides input to he institutional business office; representatives of the business office cannot evaluate the impact of budget revisions on the scientific outcome of the project. The PI is responsible for ensuring that the research aims of the grant can be accomplished within the negotiated budget.

Upon notification of funding, your institution may want to publicize the award. Work within institutional guidelines to do so and help ensure that the information presented is accurate. Though you may have minimal control over what others choose to highlight, do your part to acknowledge your collaborators and others who are making the research possible. Do not be surprised if you are asked to comment on projected results before you even have begun the research. Be careful not to be overtly optimistic, lest you be asked to explain your "failure" several years later.

Your institution may provide an orientation session or a manual for new PIs. If so, take advantage of such resources early, before they make mistakes. Throughout the life of the grant, don't guess what to do; seek advice. Institutional officials, your investigative team, other seasoned researchers, and your PO can help you avoid mistakes.

When preparing for start-up of the funded grant, it is appropriate to call the funding agency to update the PO on your readiness for grant activities and to work out a plan for communicating with the PO over the course of the grant. Some agencies or POs require formal periodic reports; others prefer phone calls or informal conversations at regular intervals; some want to be contacted only for significant issues. While individual styles vary, every PO wants a successful project, and no one likes to be taken by surprise by problems first reported in an end-of-year continuation application. By showing a willingness to communicate openly from the very start, a PI can help lay the foundation for a positive relationship in which the PO can become an advocate for the grant at the funding agency.

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Financial Management

For the grant to function, you must learn how to spend money in accordance with the rules of your agency. Your institutional budget office will create an account from which grant funds can be expended. Study the budget justification, and budgetary revisions, and the funding agency's guidelines. If your institution does not schedule routine orientation sessions, set up meetings with budget officials to learn the rules of the institution. If you obtained the support of these officials during the grant application process, they will be expecting you. If not, describe the grant and indicate a desire to operate within institutional rules so that the grant will not cause accounting problems. The first meeting with the budget office can focus on policies and should include the PI and key staff who will deal with budget issues. The second meeting, for staff only, can focus on rules for completing and processing accounting forms.

After the meetings, it is helpful to design a chart to organize the newly learned information about accounting forms, unless one is already available. The chart should list each form, its purpose, instructions for completion, signatures required, and directions for routing through the system. It will be a handy reference at the beginning of the project, as well as an orientation tool for new personnel throughout the grant period.

The chart should be reviewed for accuracy by the budget officials with whom you met; enclose it with a letter of appreciation. The meeting, your expressed desire to complete the paperwork correctly, the thank-you letter, and the chart (which the budget office can use to orient other PIs) can foster supportive working relationships with these key officials. Because problems can occur over the course of a grant, good working relationships are needed to help everyone focus on solving the problems rather than assigning blame to them.

To manage grant finances properly, a PI need up-to-date accounting information. If institutional offices cannot provide timely reports or budget forecasting services, the grant should maintain an internal accounting system. Pre-grant discussions with your administrators will have revealed whether this is necessary and if so, will have enabled you to plan the personnel and resources as needed to handle such a system. In any case, as PI, you will need to ensure that expenditures are within the allotted budget. Compare expenditures with projected expenses at fixed times during the budget year (e.g., quarterly). Use analyses of past expenses to forecast recurring needs, judge whether unforeseen needs can be met, and plan future budgets.

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Personnel Management

The PI, as well as any supervisory staff hired, may need to meet with the personnel office to learn institutional rules for managing personnel. There are rules (and forms) for hiring, paying, evaluating, and promoting employees, upgrading positions and increasing salaries, and terminating employees. As with accounting, a chart or outline of these processes will be helpful. Follow up the personnel meetings in the same manner as the budget meetings. The need for support and advice from the personnel office will continue for the duration of the grant.

Personnel management in a research project carries special responsibilities not found in nonresearch settings. The PI of a research project is responsible for quality control in data collection, analysis, and interpretation. A small error at any stage of the project can have major repercussions. Newly hired staff may not understand the need for accuracy and attention to detail involved in research, especially in relation to data verification and quality control procedures. Without appropriate direction, any staff member could compromise the validity of the research. Therefore, staff should be hired with the understanding that they must learn and abide by the special rules of research. As PI, you must ensure that all staff are oriented and trained to adhere to these rules, keeping in mind that such rules may seem mysterious or even frightening to new employees. A nonthreatening environment in which mistakes are allowed, but are expected to be corrected, can foster learning and minimize negative consequences.

Providing staff members with an overview of the design of the project can help them see how their work contributes to the achievement of the research goals. Although not everyone needs to know the scientific intricacies of the research plan, explaining the "big picture" to staff members underscores the importance of their work and helps them feel valued.

An ongoing staff development program can help meet the challenging needs of the grant and of grant members whose professional needs may change. Staff members who acquire additional skills will become more valuable to the project. For example, a clerk hired only for typing may learn to oversee the data entry system. The staff—and the grant—may also benefit from opportunities for authorship of peer-reviewed publications arising from the grant. Participation in authorship is useful for developing skills in reviewing literature, analyzing and interpreting findings, reporting results in tables, and writing for scientific audiences. In addition, such involvement increases staff members' sense of partnership in the grant—a form of "profit sharing."

While an atmosphere of respect for staff development helps to lessen employees turnover, disruptions caused by illness, maternity or military leave, the graduation of student employees, or other circumstances will occur. To the extent that disruptions can be anticipated, plan for training replacements and retraining affected employees upon their return. The videotaping of training sessions may be a useful timesaver.

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Additional Measures for Quality Control

Developing a policy manual to guide the scientific investigation is helpful. The manual should document methodological issues not outlined in the original research plan, as well as scientific decisions made in the course of implementing the grant. As a general rule, as long as the overall scope of the project is not altered, the funding agency allows the PI to make needed methodological or procedural changes. Significant changes should be discussed with the PO.

To ensure the quality of data, conduct interim analyses. Although preliminary data may be insufficient for testing hypotheses or drawing conclusions, interim analyses enable you to determine whether data are entered properly, whether computer programs are written correctly, and whether data are logical and valid. They also help verify whether data are logical and valid. In addition, periodic analyses are useful for monitoring process indicators (e.g., interviews completed for each study group by each interviewer) and for assessing trends. If problems are uncovered, solutions can be developed more easily during the course of the grant than at the end.

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Adhering to a Timeline

The effectiveness of grant management is judged partly by the ability to accomplish activities in accordance with the timeline specified by the grant. A proactive management style, with a view toward planning for unexpected events and verifying that tasks are completed correctly, helps to ensure adherence to the timeline.

Share the timeline with project staff so that they can see how their work leads to the achievement of grant milestones. Divide each milestone into the steps required to reach it and gauge the time needed to complete each step. Assign responsibility, set a deadline for completing each step, and follow up to see that the steps are completed.

An enlarged timeline of the current time period, with check marks for completed milestones, can be a visible source of satisfaction for staff. Use the timeline to plan ahead. During slower periods, or when staff members have extra time available—such as when student assistants do not have classes—accomplish tasks in advance. Doing so will help get jobs done more easily and may provide time to handle the unexpected events that inevitably occur.

Complex tasks can be managed more easily if they are broken into smaller tasks. For recurring complex tasks, develop detailed, sequential checklists. A checklist guides staff members to complete the components of a task, ensures continuity when an unfinished task must be completed by another worker, and verifies that a task was done properly. It also serves as a training tool for new employees.

Anticipate potential problems in meeting deadlines. Such problems most often occur when a grant relies on an outside agency for a product or service. For example, if a collaborating agency is consistently late in supplying data for subjects, discussions with agency personnel may reveal that data could be supplied more quickly if requests from the grant were organized with subjects listed according to agency identification numbers instead of alphabetically.

If you anticipate serious problems in accomplishing grant activities, discuss the problems and their most viable solutions with your PO. Most POs will be encouraged if you prospectively try to avoid problems and the complications that result from them—rather than retrospectively ask for funds to solve them. Also, POs often have considerable experience in overseeing a variety of grants and may be able to recommend simple solutions to the problems.

Regardless of how well you plan, problems occur. Handled positively, they can become valuable learning experiences for researchers. Documenting the problems encountered and their solutions is helpful for solving problems in the future and ensures an accurate record for reports and publications.

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Authorship

To avoid misunderstandings about authorship of publications and presentations arising from the grant, develop and document policies. It may not be necessary or even appropriate for the PI to participate in authorship of all reports generated by the grant. However, the PI is accountable to the funding agency for appropriate dissemination of grant-related information. Conflicting, incorrect, or inappropriately timed reports must be avoided.

Early in the grant period, plan a timeline for disseminating information through manuscripts and presentations. It is not necessary to wait for results before planning the types of reports needed. A proactive policy with mechanisms for discussing proposed reports with team members, inviting authorship from members who can best contribute, and coordinating reports through the PI will help achieve the goals of the grant and of individual investigators and staff members.

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Communication

To carry out grant activities on schedule and in accordance with the scientific research plan, you will need the continued cooperation, collaboration, and goodwill of many individuals from various agencies. You and your staff must interact effectively and communicate grant needs appropriately to investigators, institutional officials, the PO, and representatives of outside agencies.

You are responsible for keeping the PO appraised of progress in the manner agreed upon. If the PO makes a site visit, bear in mind that this should not be a harrowing event, but an opportunity to communicate information about your project. Openness about problems and concerns is crucial. In an atmosphere of trust, a PO can help identify ways to overcome obstacles and can open doors to expand your research agenda.

The success of a research project relies on the cooperation and goodwill of service agencies for access to data and subjects. Therefore, cordial and effective communication is essential. Schedule regular meetings to update agency personnel on your progress and to allow them to provide feedback on how grant activities affect them. These meetings help agency personnel develop a sense of partnership in the grant. Follow up each meeting with a thank-you letter that confirms the major decisions made at the meeting. The letter will help clarify misunderstandings, prevent future problems, and provide documentation of the issues discussed.

While such followup letters are appropriate for all important meetings, not just those with outside agencies, much communication will be conducted by phone. Staff members may need guidance so that they represent the grant well to outside callers. Important phone calls should also be followed up in writing, and the receipt of critical written correspondence should he acknowledged by phone.

Requests for information can be designed to facilitate a timely and correct response. For example, a request for a letter of agreement might include a sample letter. A request to a data analysis subcontractor might include dummy tables and templates specifying the exact information needed.

Other aids to communication are electronic mail, facsimile (fax) transmission, and project newsletters. Electronic mail facilitates rapid communication and is useful for sending multiple copies of short messages. Fax transmission offers the opportunity for quick feedback on longer or formatted documents, such as research instruments. A regular newsletter keeps the investigators and PO appraised of progress and informed about the project as a whole. This is especially helpful for those team members, such as consultants or specialists, whose level of involvement fluctuates during the life of a grant. Newsletters also provide information needed for future reports, manuscripts, and continuation applications.

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The Continuation Application

In the middle of a grant year, begin planning for the continuation application, which usually must be submitted about 3 months before the end of a grant budget year. Although the format may vary across funding agencies, the application usually requires information on progress made in meeting grant objectives, managing activities, and allocating resources. It must include the next year's work plan, staff responsibilities, and a budget (within the previously approved amount) that is clearly justified by the work plan (Weston, 1985). To ensure timely submission of the application, prepare a schedule with interim deadlines for assembling the various components, such as face pages and biosketches for new key personnel. For the progress report, develop an outline of key points to be addressed. You will need to describe clearly how the grant accomplished the prescribed activities and intended aims. Explain and justify any changes in the original plan or budget. Significant changes should have been communicated to the PO previously and should not come as a surprise in the application.

Depending on the funding agency, some applications are reviewed by agency staff, some by outside reviewers, and some by both. In any case, the PO is expected to be available if questions are raised in the review process. A well-informed PO will be able to provide further background and justification for your decisions and proposed plans.

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Preparing for Future Grants

When a grant is completed, you must submit all required reports and arrange for the disposition or final allocation of property, equipment, and supplies, usually 90 days after the end of grant support. Be sure to abide by regulations regarding accountability for equipment, retention of records, or a future audit (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1990). The PO can advise you about the structure of the final report.

However, do not wait until the grant terminates to prepare for future grants. Prepare your next competitive proposal early in the last year of the grant, when you will be in a favorable position to conduct further research. Your experiences in carrying out the current grant will enhance your chances of future funding. When the grant ends, you will have a seasoned investigative team that is even more knowledgeable about the research area, and, if you have attended to staff development, you will have excellent personnel resources. A student assistant who has completed a graduate degree may be ready to become a project director, for example, or a secretary may be ready to become an administrative assistant. You also may have usable equipment.

Successful experiences in managing funded research will lead to a smooth transition from the end of one grant to the beginning of another. The PO, your ally as a result of positive experiences with the grant, can help determine the most appropriate source of funding for research efforts that expand on the existing grant. One successful experience will lead to another as you work toward your goal of increasing knowledge about health and helping to improve the health of the population studied.

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References

Bauer, D.G. (1984). The "How To" grant manual: Successful grantseeking techniques for obtaining public and private grants. New York: Macmillan.

Selby, M.L., Riportella-Muller, R., Farel, A. (1992). Building administrative support for your research: a neglected key for turning a research plan into a funded project. Nursing Outlook, 40(2), 73-77.

Tornquist, E.M., & Funk, S.G. (1990). How to write a research grant proposal. Image, the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 22 (1), 44-51.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1990). PHS Grants Policy Statement (HHS Publication No. (OASH) 90-50,000). Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Weston, J. (1985, March). Project officer's handy dandy guide to project monitoring (revised). Rockville, MD: Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, U.S. Public Health Service (internal document, not available for distribution).


Maija L. Selby-Harrington, Dr.P.H., R.N., is associate professor and director of research, School of Nursing, University of North Carolina at Greensboro Greensboro, NC.

Patricia L. Donat, M.A., is social research associate, School of Nursing, University of North Carolina at Greensboro Greensboro, NC.

Heddy D. Hubbard, M.P.H., R.N., is a health science administrator, Center for Medical Effectiveness Research, Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, U.S. Public Health Service, Rockville, MD.


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Current as of December 2000
Internet Citation: Guidance for Managing a Research Grant. December 2000. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/professionals/clinicians-providers/resources/nursing/funding/grants/grant-management.html