As the leading State institution for research on the causes, treatment, and prevention of diseases, UTHSC‘s vision, as outlined in the 2016 Operational Strategic Plan for Research (OSPR), is “To become a world-class, interdisciplinary, and research-intensive health science center.” To foster this vision, the Office of Research has worked to systematically strengthen and grow research at UTHSC and harmonize our work with partner institutions. These efforts have been guided by the belief that being a premier research institution demands not only highly qualified researchers and state-of-the art resources, but also a research infrastructure designed to enhance faculty success and investigator productivity.
The Operational Strategic Plan for Research identified systemic challenges that threatened the strength of UTHSC’s research enterprise as a whole. Among them were three major issues: first, the lack of a centralized administrative support to facilitate the pace of research; second, the lack of an ongoing review of activities and policies related to compliance, grants and research agreements, and safety affairs, in order to determine whether and where there were self-imposed unwarranted and unnecessary burdens; and third, the need for improved quality and service in UTHSC’s animal care and use program.
Addressing these challenges involved creating a completely new centralized administrative office for all pre- and post-award functions, and research contracting: The Office of Sponsored Programs. It also involved enhancing the capabilities and/or reorganizing several other entities: the Lab Animal Care Unit, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, the Institutional Review Board, the Institutional Biosafety Committee, and the Office of Research Safety Affairs. The resulting environment has become a well-developed, efficient support network with a service-oriented culture. Each office and unit instituted myriad individual changes to achieve this collective outcome. Below are highlights of the biggest successes and the current efforts to build upon the new standards set in motion in 2016.
Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP): The Office of Sponsored Programs was created in 2017. It combined the existing Office of Grants and Research Agreements with Sponsored Projects Accounting, which seamlessly integrated the proposal submission process, contract negotiations, and acceptance of awards. This, in turn, created an economy of scale. The growing portfolio of MTAs, CDAs, subawards, clinical trial agreements, and grant submissions was accommodated with the introduction of workflow management. These changes also improved UTHSC’s efficiency in conducting regulatory compliance and fulfilling sponsor financial reporting requirements. Key metrics reveal dramatically improved turnaround time: for contracts executed in the first quarter of calendar year 2017, the average number of days to close a contract across all non-grant instruments was 81.9 days. The present contract turnaround time averaged across all instrument types is 44.4 days. Specific examples underlying the overall performance for the same timeframe include the execution of subawards (60.2 vs. 52.7), clinical trials (176.7 vs. 54.1), and MTAs (85.1 to 30.6).
Lab Animal Care Unit (LACU): The 2016 staff and leadership reorganization of the LACU resulted in new ways of thinking, planning and operating. Key positions in operations management and facility oversight were created. Standard operating procedures, guidance documents, and stricter training requirements were introduced, bringing a new level of quality to UTHSC’s animal care and a new level of satisfaction to its customers and users. The LACU now maintains 100% AALAS (American Association for Laboratory Animal Science) certification, thanks to the new requirement that all husbandry staff achieve the appropriate level of certification for their position.
Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC): In 2016, the IBC replaced its paper-based application system with an online platform that revolutionized the process of writing, submitting, and reviewing protocol applications. Constructed in-house, using logic that enables investigators to only “see” protocol sections needed for their proposed work, this tool eliminates confusion about the types of information required. New, standardized language for risk assessments and mitigation was written and embedded into the form, further reducing investigator burden. Protocol completion is now faster, easier, and much more accurate – which, in turn, has made the pre-review and full committee review much more efficient and effective.
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC): In 2016, the IACUC introduced critically needed policy-related and operational changes to ease investigator burden and enhance regulatory compliance. An extensive review of all existing policies covering animal research activities unveiled opportunities to streamline the submission and review process of animal use protocols and improve approval time. The requirement that all animal use protocols undergo Full Committee Review was replaced with an option for Designated Member Review. Mandatory pre-review (including veterinary and safety review) and a nonstop rolling review process slashed review time from 3 months to an average of 13 days. Committee members now review protocols as they arrive, ensuring the timely reviews investigators have come to expect. New guidelines and procedures clarified expectations for investigators and reviewers, bringing about a greatly enhanced functioning of the IACUC and its working relationship with animal researchers.
Research Safety Affairs (RSA): In 2017, the RSA underwent a complete overhaul, with a reorganization of staff and leadership, and the establishment of new standard operating procedures, policies, and training practices. It introduced initiatives to achieve a major culture shift, moving away from policing researchers and towards providing customer service to achieve improvements. In its new spirit of collaboration, the RSA worked with committees to develop new campus safety procedures and now works jointly with them to investigate incidents and inspect LACU facilities. The cumulative result of these changes is a significant decrease in the number of safety findings in yearly lab inspections, often to zero. Turnaround on safety review of protocols also drastically improved: safety reviews of IACUC and IBC protocols are complete within 48 and 72 hours, respectively.
Other RSA initiatives rolled out over the past few years include fume hood evaluations: an additional 24 fume hoods were restored to service within the past year and airflow rates in all hoods were brought within the accepted safe-operating range, saving UTHSC an estimated $84,000 per year in energy costs. The RSA also now provides NSF-compliant biosafety cabinet certifications and maintenance at less than half the market rate charged by vendors.
Addressing infrastructure vulnerabilities identified in the OSPR has helped advance the strategic goals of the Office of Research. The sweeping changes made over the past four years revitalized each of the above-discussed units, allowing them to deliver a new level of support to researchers. Many improved service metrics point to the success of these changes, from reduced turnaround time to increased accuracy. A new level of quality has been reached through increased certifications and improved safety standings, allowing individual units to exceeding target goals and achieve efficiency-related cost-savings. Perhaps just as prized by leadership is the culture shifts these changes have brought: unit management has noted improved morale, born of new confidence within their teams, and a new pride of service and reputation.
Each unit continues to build upon the progress of the past few years, analyzing processes to find more ways to improve procedure efficiency while cutting expenses and increasing research support. The OSP recently introduced new technology (SmartForms) to simplify and streamline the submission process for business forms. The LACU is applying Lean Six Sigma principles to specific workflow projects, purchasing practices, and other areas. The RSA is working to progress beyond evaluating laboratory conditions to focus on workplace behaviors. It is expanding efforts to promote sustainability in research labs and is extending safety programs to the rest of campus by collaborating with other UTHSC academic programs and departments.
By investing in improved infrastructure, the Office of Research is better serving its researchers, improving its competitive ranking, and attracting new talent. The commitment to strengthening and deepening our support systems, whether those be fundamental business services, enhanced technology capabilities, or improved training, ultimately paves the way for continued accelerated growth of UTHSC’s research portfolio.