Shortly after I assumed the role of Vice President for Research (VPR) on July 1, I embarked on a “listening tour” of UGA’s colleges and schools and a “reading tour” of past surveys about UGA research. The questions I wanted to answer include: What are the obstacles preventing you from successfully achieving the goals defined in your Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship strategic plans, and how can the Office of Research (OoR) help?
It’s hard to believe nearly five months have passed since I started this process, but these listening and reading sessions—which are ongoing—have been invaluable in helping identify the challenges UGA researchers face. I am reminded that the research itself is nearly as diverse in needs and potential as the 38,000 students who work in the laboratories, studios, libraries, performance halls, field locations and other research and creative inquiry spaces around the state of Georgia and beyond.
Still, in less than half a year we have made some real progress and launched efforts to address several of the issues that have been revealed, some of which I’ve described in this news space. My first priority as VPR, as I’ve expressed many times, is to rebuild and modernize UGA’s research infrastructure to align it with the tremendous growth in research activity UGA has experienced over the last decade. As we near the end of 2021 and look ahead to a new year, it’s worth recapping some of these efforts:
Human infrastructure. We have implemented many technological systems and digital tools to bring efficiencies to our research and business operations; however, staff members with systems expertise are crucial to realizing these efficiencies and the full potential of the systems. In the last 10 years, as research activity has grown significantly, Office of Research staffing has remained flat, and in some instances (for example as a result of a 7% pandemic induced budget cut in 2020) it has decreased, while compensation has fallen well below competitive levels. These realities undermine our burgeoning research needs; accordingly, I have redirected our limited resources to actively recruit and retain staff in OoR units, including Innovation Gateway, Research Integrity and Safety (e.g., our Human Subjects Office, or HSO), Sponsored Projects Administration, and Research Communications.
Institutional Review Board review. The pandemic and staffing challenges have significantly diminished our ability to efficiently and expeditiously evaluate and approve submissions to our Institutional Review Board (IRB). To augment our existing agreement with WCG IRB, founded in 1968 as the world’s first independent IRB, and to address a backlog of submissions, we’ve entered into a similar agreement with Sterling IRB. While commercial IRBs do not provide the hands-on service our HSO provides, they will certainly improve the throughput of research protocols (at no cost to the researcher) while we rebuild the staffing in HSO. Concurrently, we are reorganizing the structure of the HSO and creating a front-facing group specifically to work directly with researchers to develop IRB protocols for submission.
Physical & IT infrastructure. My last two blog posts both described efforts to improve our infrastructure related to facilities and information technology, so I won’t review those efforts in detail here. The newly launched FMD-Research Working Group, as well as our own Office of Information Technology, are working to identify and address multiple issues and needs, and I am committed to working with the Provost and President to identify resources to address these needs, beginning with those that affect the widest number of researchers. These are not quick fixes, and we will keep you informed as these initiatives progress and take shape.
Internal communications. For the past three years, our Office of Research Communications has revamped its activities and channels to showcase UGA research success for external audiences—indeed, this objective is explicit in UGA’s 2025 strategic plan. Alongside this work, the “RComm” team now is reimagining how we talk and listen to our own internal audiences. Earlier this fall we surveyed faculty on needs and preferences for research-related communications, and you’ll start to see the results of this effort as early as January.
Strengthening support for humanities & arts. Like those at many large research universities, we work hard to support all research disciplines. Feedback to our internal communications survey suggests we don’t always succeed. With the generous help of the Willson Center for Humanities & Arts, we are working to identify ways we can better provide faculty members in these areas with information they need to advance their own research programs while staying connected—in an era of increasing interdisciplinary collaboration—with colleagues from other disciplines.
I recently participated in my first UGA Research Foundation (UGARF) Board of Directors meeting as UGARF’s executive vice president. Part of that meeting is a review of recent sponsored research activity, including highlights of a few notable awarded projects. We ensured the Board’s materials included a balance of sponsored awards in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, as well as several projects that were not supported by external sponsored funds. Indeed, research on the UGA campus and beyond is research, whether it’s supported by a seven-figure grant or not. Research produces new knowledge and advances the human condition. It “inquires into the nature of things,” to quote our UGA motto.
As we move through this holiday season in a time of so much uncertainty and division in the world, I look forward to a new year of recognizing and supporting the value of all our researchers, across all disciplines and at all levels, from the newest undergraduates to the most seasoned faculty researchers.
It has been a whirlwind five months. Have a wonderful holiday, and I’ll see you in 2022.
Karen J. L. Burg
Vice President for Research
Harbor Lights Chair in Biomedical Research