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Proposal: A Data Standard for the Communication of Funding Results
Those of us involved in the CASRAI initiative can persuasively argue the potential long term benefit of data standards. Unfortunately, the arguments for the translation of these benefits into concrete, quantifiable savings and/or improvements in service in the near-term, are often not made, or not clear.
As a response to this conundrum, I would propose that the CASRAI Research Activity Committee (of which I am a co-chair) move to prioritize a data standard for the communication of funding results to recipients and, in particular, recipient institutions. The adoption by funders of such a standard promises substantial immediate savings to recipient institutions, along with opportunities for improved service delivery.
I have worked on a number of projects for the University of Toronto (a CASRAI member) on web-enabled process automation; submission and internal approval of research applications, submission and review of human and animal ethics protocols, and of particular relevance here, automatic set up of research accounts.
Like most institutions, the University of Toronto tracks the success of its applications in a research information database. It also produces a control document when a research award is made. In the U of T’s case this document is called the Funded Research Digest or colloquially, the FReD. The FReD is a summary of the terms and conditions of the award and includes the budget information related to the award. As part of FReD creation process, the budget information is entered in the University’s financial system, thereby opening the account for use by the Principal Investigator.
Accurately tracking the approximately 3500 applications submitted by U of T investigators each year and setting up new accounts is both time sensitive and time consuming. As everyone who has worked in a research office knows, the pressure to provide instantaneous analysis for major competitions and access to new accounts is enormous. With 3500 applications every year this is no small feat for an institution like the U of T.
With this in mind, the University has commenced preliminary work on a project to automatically upload competition results to its Research Information System, notify applicants and academic administrators of the outcomes and set up FReDs for successful applicants.
In order to define the scope of this project, an analysis was conducted of the University’s research applications. Looking at the two year period April 1, 2009 to March 31, 2011, of the 652 unique funders to which applications were submitted by University researchers, only 7 funders received in excess of 100 applications in a year from the University. Unfortunately not all these funders provide competition results in an electronic format to the University, and of the funders that do, not all provide results for all programs in a format that is amenable to an automatic upload of results.
Nonetheless, even with these restrictions in mind, it was determined that between 25% and 50% of the results which the University receives could eventually be handled by automatic upload. Using conservative estimates of the amount of time taken to manually update results in the system and set up new accounts, this would translate into a potential annual time saving for research office staff of 218 hours at the low end, to 436 hours at the high end, or approximately 6 to 12 weeks of savings overall.
If, on the other hand, a common data standard for research results were deployed and adopted, the benefit would be twofold; there would be a reduction in development and maintenance costs as the need for agency or even program specific upload programs would be eliminated, and it would expand the pool of potential agencies suitable for treatment in this manner. In the case of the University of Toronto, it is estimated that if the standard were broadly implemented, potentially 80% of the applications processed by the University could be handled in this manner. This would not only increase the potential savings to institutions but it also increases the number of institutions for which this methodology becomes a viable alternative. With widespread adoption, the cost/benefit analysis for institutions with smaller research portfolios will tip in favour of implementation of automated programming interfaces for the upload of competition results.
Within the Canadian context, the greatest immediate benefit to institutions would occur if the federal research granting agencies, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), were to adopt such a common standard and commit to providing all results in a compliant electronic format. It appears that NSERC and SSHRC are well on their way to adopting a CASRAI-compliant approach. As of writing, no firm commitment has been made by CIHR but I hope this will change soon. Given the pressures that Canadian institutions and the Councils are under to conduct their operations efficiently, it would be a pity if this opportunity for a harmonized approach among the three Councils were to be missed. Not to mention the added benefits resulting from other funding agencies also adopting.
In comparison to other standards currently under development by CASRAI, a standard for communication of application results, with the small number of data elements required, would appear to be a relatively simple undertaking. Developing this standard now, at a time where NSERC and SSHRC are in the process of revamping their data systems, makes for a propitious constellation of events which would provide concrete proof to institutions of the benefits of CASRAI and the approach to data management it enables.