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Research Enterprise

By Gregg Sangillo

A Caucasian man smiling.

James Casey, director of AU's Office of Sponsored Programs.

As director of the Office of Sponsored Programs, James Casey holds a vital position at American University. He not only helps manage sponsored projects, but he’s involved in collaborative efforts to make AU a premier research institution. For a job that requires close attention to detail, Casey draws upon his legal training and grants management experience. In an edited interview below, Casey talks with University Communications about OSP’s mission and how research grants foster a vibrant academic community.

UC: What is the primary responsibility of the Office of Sponsored Programs?

Casey: “The core business function is pre-award and nonfinancial post-award research administration. That includes helping to develop, review, and submit proposals to external agencies. Those are primarily faculty or staff proposals, although we occasionally have student fellowships. The other side of the coin is negotiating contracts and agreements. That’s part of the sponsored research ecosystem of our work, being in close partnership with Grants and Contracts Accounting (GCA), an office located right down the hall. You could have professor X submit a National Science Foundation grant. We submit it on behalf of the university, because all sponsored research proposals are institutional proposals. Then, maybe two or three months later, we get notification that it’s being funded. We’ll set up the beginning of the project. AU gets a variety of awards from different sponsors, from the federal government, state governments, the District of Columbia, private companies, foundations.”

UC: How challenging is it to maintain institutional compliance?

Casey: “We always have a compliance function at OSP, but we really want to facilitate research. There are certain rules and regulations the university has to follow. If it’s federal money, the Office of Management and Budget Uniform Guidance Circular is a big deal now. I think people recognize that compliance is important. But I also don’t want the idea of compliance to be so strong that faculty will quit writing grants, or think, ‘Oh, it’s going to become a real pain to work with OSP.’ So a big part of OSP’s job is to facilitate sponsored research.”

UC: Why is it important for professors to seek grants and contracts? What kinds of possibilities does this open up for academics?

Casey: “Well, the good jump from compliance starts with the idea that we’re stewards of other people’s money. It could be the U.S. taxpayer, it could be a foundation, it could be a private company. Then the question naturally follows, ‘Why do we do this? Why does any university get involved in sponsored research?’ It’s to advance knowledge. It will also—whether it’s written into the proposal or not—make teaching better in the classroom. The knowledge gained might be published, but the professor can also use it in a course. These grants are really meant to strengthen the entire university. Not just the project itself, in its discrete formulation, but it should make the university a more vibrant place.”

UC: Are these grants becoming more and more competitive?

Casey: “Yes. It’s very competitive because aside from the stimulus bill in 2009, most funding increases have been relatively meager in the years since. Now there has been a more recent push to give more money to the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. But a lot of other agencies are not so lucky. And if the discretionary research and development part of the U.S. budget is either in decline or at zero percent growth, faculty will start looking to foundations for funding. But in instances of rapid federal budget growth, a lot of faculty will start going back into the federal trough for the money. [Vice Provost for Research] Jonathan Tubman and I have been trying to create a more facilitative culture, hopefully to get larger grants written, and maybe multidisciplinary grants across different parts of AU. I think that’s one thing we need to do, given the increased competitiveness.”

UC: What’s the most difficult aspect of research management?

Casey: “It’s really balancing the idea of facilitation versus compliance. You know, I see our office as a facilitator first, rather than just compliance. But make no mistake, we have to be compliant. My staff is more operational in nature. Just getting the proposals reviewed and out the door, and getting the awards set up. But research administrators need to be cognizant that there is this dual role, and often times we’re sitting on the fence balancing both. All schools have to deal with these challenges. We’ve recently been the subject of audits and reviews. In February, we had the National Science Foundation in here for three days to do a desk review.”

UC: NSF people met with OSP?

Casey: “They actually camped out at our conference table for three days. They talked to a couple faculty members on a couple of the large projects, but they primarily spoke to both GCA and me. We are waiting for the findings, but the preliminary feedback we received at the end of the meeting was very favorable.”

UC: With research, how do you anticipate what is going to be an area of need? For instance, Ebola was a big issue a while back, but now there’s much more concern about the Zika virus. How can you make the process responsive to changes in research needs?

Casey: “Well, it’s hard. Those of us who are connected to some policy issues in the professional associations or in the higher ed lobbying organizations, we have a few months’ heads up on what may be coming down the pike. There are going to be issues—like Zika or Ebola—that just crop up in a matter of weeks, the media picks them up and all of the sudden they become a big focus. A good question to ask is, ‘What are AU’s strengths? Where do you want to see the university in five years?’ It’s not only a question of, ‘What are the hot topics?’ and ‘Where is the big money that a president wants to use for specific areas?’ Like when President Obama said he wanted to put in extra money for cancer research or the brain initiative. I think universities need to look at what they’re good at, and where they want to go five to 10 years down the road. Every university’s posture is different. Since very few universities can pump a whole lot of money into everything under the sun, it is a matter of choices for the institution. But we’re trying to grow the research enterprise here.”