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How the Pre-Award Team Filled a Resource Gap

Obtaining sponsorship for research is a complex process that requires a lot of support from universities, which can yield niche issues and gaps in resources for scholars. Over the past decade, the University of Utah has developed and built on a solution to ensure that all researchers have the resources needed to fund their important research: a robust pre-award team of experienced grant and contract officers.

Sponsoring Research

Sponsorship for research projects can be a complex process, and support may vary depending on what department you are in. While the university has resources that serve as a foundation for research, such as lab space, equipment, offices, data hubs, an academic hospital, and more, the onus is on researchers to acquire funds that will allow them to develop projects and generate knowledge.

Funds can come from a variety of sources, such as government agencies like the National Institutes of Health or foundations that have allocated grant funds for specific types of research.

While a variety of sponsorship sources are available, scientists often find it difficult to balance research and academic commitments with writing grant applications. Many departments throughout the university have grant and contract officers on staff to apply their experience in drafting and refining applications to have a higher likelihood of success.

A Gap in Resources

However, not all departments have the resources to support their own grant and contract officers on staff. A disparity in support between clinical and non-clinical departments was evident to Michael Good, MD. His philosophy was that non-clinical and clinical researchers are equally important in the effort to make discoveries that lead to improved health care.

In 2015, Good sought to bridge the gap. As the Senior Vice President of Health Sciences at University of Utah Health, he commissioned a pre-award team through the SVPHS Research Unit that would serve as a resource for research investigators in non-clinical research and the biosciences who needed access to a grant and contract officer.

The SVPHS Research Unit Pre-Award Team

Initially, the pre-award team was a team of one: Kami McNeill, grants and contracts officer. She became a one-stop shop that increased the quality of grant applications for researchers who had traditionally been under-supported. An experienced officer, such as McNeill, can apply her knowledge of agencies’ and foundations’ priorities to ensure that applications are top-notch and that research investigators apply for grants that they are appropriately qualified for.

As the fruits of this approach became clear, the pre-award team grew with additional grant and contract officers.

Partly due to the pre-award team’s efforts, the U’s research funding has continually increased over the past decade. The team became a model of success for a problem all research universities confront.

A Model Worth Growing

In 2020, the Office of the Vice President for Research took notice of the pre-award team’s track record of success.

Under the leadership of Andrew Weyrich, MD, vice president for research, the office worked with the existing SVPHS pre-award team to expand the team’s footprint, by commissioning, Joy Blatchford, associate director of the pre-award team, to develop an expanded pre-award unit that fills in the grant and contract officer gap for all researchers at the U.

The pre-award team showing off their U tie-dye shirts at a 2023 team activity.

Continued Success

As the pre-award team has increased its staff membership from one to 13, its capacity and reach have significantly expanded. The U reached a record $768 million in research funding for sponsored projects in fiscal year 2023, and the pre-award team played a significant role in helping the institution and its research faculty achieve that milestone.

As a university with a training hospital, research sponsorship resources naturally found their way to clinical research, leaving a gap for non-clinical researchers.  But the pre-award team model has proven to be a creative solution for the problem and has become a University of Utah strength, making research sponsorship a more accessible prospect.