VP for Research and Innovation Updates Academic Council on Regulatory Environment

Research regulation changes 1991-2023. Source: COGR
Jennifer Lodge, vice president for research and innovation.

“What we can do is help faculty understand those regulations and make it as easy as possible for them to comply.”

Faculty surveys by Lodge’s Office for Research and Innovation (ORI) show that faculty believe that the responsibility for research compliance has shifted from the administration to faculty. Lodge said that the increase is part “of the tsunami of federal requirements, and it’s not stopping.”

However, the office has taken steps to address some of the most common faculty concerns and has plans to address others, Lodge said.

She said information is being better targeted to specific audiences, to less overload faculty with unnecessary information. A revamped ORI website is helping faculty connect to the most appropriate research administrator to help with a grant proposal.

And Research and Innovation Week (Jan. 29 – Feb. 1) will now offer expanded programming on best practices that is available to all faculty, regardless of discipline.

The office has launched several pilot projects to reduce the amount of time needed to review specific types of research proposals, alleviating some deadline pressure for faculty. One of the larger pilot projects promises a three-day review for many non-federal grant proposals under $100,000. This constitutes about 12-15% of all proposals, Lodge said. 

Other efforts hope to automate access to standard information on university facilities, resources and other content that generally must be provided with the grant proposal, Lodge said.

In response, a number of faculty asked Lodge about concerns they’ve encountered in their research that they said needed more attention. While acknowledging the growth in federal regulations, several faculty members made clear that they believe Duke research administrators are interpreting the federal rules more strictly than their colleagues at other institutions.

Among the issues raised were financial support for graduate students on international research, reimbursement for research partners in international countries, and the amount of time it takes for Duke proposals to be reviewed.

“It’s my impression that Duke is more rigid and conservative in interpretation,” said Dr. Harvey Cohen, Walter Kempner Distinguished Professor of Medicine. “Colleagues at other institutions can do things on the same grant that Duke faculty can’t. I’ve had occasions when the National Institutes of Health tells me that something is OK, and I come back and am told by Duke people that I can’t.”

Law professor Veronica Martinez cited a joint grant she was involved in with colleagues at New York University. The proposal had already been approved by NYU offices, but two months later, Duke completed its review and required changes.

Humanities faculty noted they often struggle with templates that are more appropriate for science and health research.

Raphael Valdivia, Nanaline H. Duke Distinguished Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and former associate dean for basic research in the medical school, reminded the assembly that in 2019 Duke was hit with a significant research misconduct penalty that continues to put the university’s research enterprise under federal scrutiny.

“It was not long ago that we were put under the microscope by the NIH,” Valdivia said. “And I think we may have forgotten that. However, I’m also concerned that the pendulum may have swung too far the other way.”

Lodge responded by acknowledging that Duke is still under scrutiny. But she said she took the faculty concerns seriously. “It is important for us to hear your concerns. This is something we need to look at across the university.”

In other items, the council heard from Ed Balleisen, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, on proposed changes to the review process for academic programs, one of the most important functions of university administration and faculty. The goal of the changes, Balleisen said, was to sharpen the focus of departments’ lengthy self studies to the key questions facing the unit, clarify the review instructions and to centralize data collection to remove that burden from them.

“We want to see a more holistic assessment of where the departments are and how we can improve them with current budgetary restraints,” Balleisen said.

The recommendations came from the Academic Programs Committee, which during the pandemic took a hard look at the review process, Balleisen said. Some of the concerns raised by the committee included use of external review teams that were unfamiliar with Duke’s internal culture or who thought their role was to serve as an advocate for the department.

The committee also noted that while the Graduate School oversaw the reviews, much of the issues raised in them, such as faculty advancement, stood outside of graduate education.

The recommendations included:

  • Move oversight of the reviews to the provost’s office, with the Graduate School still being involved
  • Adding confidential external peer review letters to the review
  • Changing the composition of the review committee to include two external and one internal – but outside of the program – reviewer

The council also approved a new executive master of public affairs degree for the Sanford School of Public Policy.