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December 5, 2013

Pitt aims to improve research support

Speeding completion of contracts and improving communication with faculty are among the top priorities in improving support for research, Vice Provost for Research Mark Redfern told Faculty Assembly in a recent report.

Changes in the Office of Research are high on the list of operational improvements he is focusing on this year and improving the amount of time it takes to complete contracts is “No. 1 on the list,” Redfern said in a Nov. 26 presentation on the University’s research agenda.

The University also aims to streamline the process for material transfer agreements, confidentiality agreements and non-disclosure agreements. New enterprise software that would allow online submissions is being evaluated and could be in place within months, he said.

University Senate President Michael Spring invited Redfern and faculty members Mara Horwitz, the Senate appointee to the University’s conflict of interest (COI) committee, and Kacey Marra, Senate appointee to the University Research Council (URC), to discuss with Faculty Assembly their work on research-related policies as the Senate deliberates whether it should establish a standing committee to address research-related concerns. (See Oct. 10 University Times.)

The COI committee, chaired by Jerome L. Rosenberg, reports to Randy Juhl, vice chancellor for research conduct and compliance.

URC advises Redfern and the provost on policies pertaining to the conduct of research, scholarship and creative activities.

Pitt, unlike many other universities, separates research compliance (which is overseen by Juhl) from Redfern’s office. “Compliance is important and complicated,” Redfern said, noting that many of his colleagues at other research universities juggle both. “Their bandwidth gets soaked up with day-to-day compliance issues,” he said, adding that he favors the University’s model because it allows him to focus on improving research while Juhl concentrates on compliance.


Marra, who has served on URC for approximately a year, said the committee’s work is comprehensive, addressing all areas of research. “We feel that the University Research Council is an entity that is set to address all of the research issues on campus,” Marra said, adding that a liaison to Faculty Assembly could be appointed to convey issues and concerns.

Horwitz, a faculty member in medicine and a clinical researcher at Pitt, said she joined the COI committee about five years ago, having become familiar with it through a colleague’s experience in working through a conflict.

Much of the COI committee’s work involves engineering or medicine, she said. “The most common thing is where investigators have an interest in what is being studied. We need to determine whether the investigator can be the principal investigator or whether they need to be removed as principal investigator and have somebody else do the studies. In addition, we approve entrepreneurial oversight licenses, contracts, sublicenses … making sure faculty are staying within appropriate limits.”

While the committee last year updated Pitt’s COI policy at the provost’s request, Horwitz said most COI meetings are centered on individual cases. “I’m not sure that those sort of nitty-gritty details would be of interest to the Senate,” she said, acknowledging that communication to the Senate would be appropriate in the case of major policy changes or issues of broad interest.

She agreed with Marra about the existing committees’ effectiveness. “I think at the moment the conflict of interest committee does a very good job in monitoring the different things that come up,” she said, adding that while periodic reporting to the Senate may be worthwhile, “I’m not sure that a duplicate committee would be beneficial.”


Redfern elaborated on other operational improvements and strategies on the administration’s agenda.

• Office of Research improvements

A new website is up and running as part of the Office of Research’s goal to improve communication with faculty. In addition, metrics are being established to measure the office’s performance both in terms of improvements over time and in determining how performance and volume change in real time to help guide improvements, Redfern said.

• Export control

Redfern noted that the partnership between Pitt engineering and Sichuan University in China (see April 4 University Times) brings up many export control issues.

The University aims to implement an export control plan that includes increased information for faculty and assistance with foreign travel and with visiting faculty processes. “We’re trying to make it easy for the faculty, not trying to make it difficult for the faculty,” he said.

He said efforts also are underway to better coordinate internal business processes among the University’s business units.

• Faculty support

Redfern said the University is seeking ways to improve support for faculty research: “How can we help faculty — particularly young faculty — with attaining competitive grants, putting in proposals, getting pilot data?” he said. “This is an area where the URC is particularly being helpful in coming up with ideas and actually implementing some of those ideas.”

A small-grants program and field trips in which young faculty visit federal agencies in Washington, D.C., have been helpful, he said. Other ideas under consideration include adding grant writing workshops and grant review processes, or possibly establishing a grants development office on the lower campus, similar to one already in place at the School of Medicine.

• Limited submissions

Redfern said limited submission proposal requests — in which Pitt can submit only one, or a small number of proposals — are becoming more common. “That means we have to have a process inside the University to very appropriately and unbiasedly vet those.”

Conversely, the University needs to develop proactive processes to identify upcoming limited submission opportunities and determine which groups at Pitt are best suited to pursue them, Redfern said.

• Sustainability

An initiative is underway to support a campus-wide effort in sustainability that would integrate research and education with facilities, making the campus a testing ground for sustainability research, Redfern said. Engineering faculty member Eric Beckman, co-director of Pitt’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, is leading a committee that aims to present a plan to the provost by the end of the spring term.

• Energy research

The University aims to expand its energy research to take advantage of opportunities including fundamental energy research, health-related energy research, water-related energy research, and integration of fossil energy with renewable energy sources, Redfern said. Pitt also seeks to develop corporate energy research opportunities and stronger ties with the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

• Corporate relations

Redfern said he is advocating for the development of a comprehensive corporate-relations plan that goes beyond partnering in research to encompass such opportunities as education (for a corporate partner’s employees as well as for students); internships and co-op positions; job placement for Pitt students, and donations of equipment.

• Exploring new initiatives

Among the “next horizons” Pitt may wish to focus on are advanced manufacturing such as 3-D printing; big data, including personalized medicine; advanced computation, and shale gas and water research, Redfern said.

The URC also is looking at ways to expand and support undergraduate research and multidisciplinary research opportunities, he said.


Spring commended Redfern’s comprehensive presentation and proposed that the Senate continue to invite regular reports on research-related issues from Senate appointees and key University administrators.

Spring reiterated that he is not pushing for a new Senate standing committee, only to ensure that research — which is a much larger part of Pitt’s operation now than it had been decades ago when the University Senate was established — receives faculty input.

In other business:

• Spring has asked the Senate bylaws committee to review several bylaws matters related to Senate standing committees, including when elections occur and how Senate liaisons are appointed. The committee also has been asked to research the history of the Senate’s standing committees to determine whether the current 15 standing committees have been in existence since the Senate was established or whether there have been changes over the years.

“That will help to inform whether or not we want to examine the nature of our focus on the standing committees,” Spring said.

• Spring reported that he had communicated to Provost Patricia E. Beeson Faculty Assembly’s concerns about Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences proposals to suspend graduate programs in classics and German and terminate graduate religious studies programs (see Nov. 7 University Times). He said a petition begun by English professor Marianne Novy to express faculty members’ concerns (see Oct. 24 University Times letters) was submitted to the provost with 109 faculty members’ signatures.

He said the provost has not made a decision about the fate of the programs.

• Faculty members Patricia Weiss and Kent Harries have been appointed to represent the Senate on a new University working group on sustainability.

• Laura Fonzi has been appointed as interim head of the Senate admissions and student aid committee.

• The Senate plenary session has been set for March 19. The tentative topic is the University in the digital age.

• Faculty Assembly’s next meeting is set for 3 p.m. Jan. 21 in 2700 Posvar Hall.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 46 Issue 8

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