Enhancing Institutional Research Capacity: Results and Lessons from a Pilot Project Program

Published In

Journal of Research Administration

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2018


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) established the Building University Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) initiative to increase engagement and retention of undergraduates from diverse backgrounds in biomedical research. Portland State University, in partnership with ten other academic institutions, received a BUILD award and developed the BUILD EXITO (Enhancing Cross-Disciplinary Infrastructure and Training at Oregon) project. The EXITO program offers a three-year research and mentorship experience for undergraduates in biomedical, behavioral, social science, clinical, and bioengineering disciplines. The BUILD initiative also emphasizes enhancing research capacity and infrastructure through institutional change and faculty development. A key piece of EXITO's program to enhance research capacity is offering faculty an opportunity to apply for up to $50,000 of funding to carry out a one-year pilot study. We conducted two separate RFAs for this purpose, closely modeled on NIH's Small Grant Program (R03), over two years. Principal Investigators of pilot projects were encouraged to include EXITO students, or other undergraduate students, on their research teams. Students then worked on these research projects as part of EXITO's intensive mentored research program. This paper reports on methods to conduct and implement a pilot project program intended to train primarily junior faculty members to write and submit an NIH proposal and fund successful applicants to gather pilot project data to aid in applying for future proposals. We provided a step-by-step rigorous submission and review process. We provided proposal writing and revising workshops, technical support, and helped pilot project Principal Investigators (PIs) with biosketches, IRB applications, IUCUC documents, budgets, and other proposal sections. We secured at least three external (not at any BUILD EXITO institution) reviewers for each proposal. PIs revised proposals before resubmitting and receiving their final scores. Across two RFAs, we provided funds to twenty PIs to conduct pilot projects; these projects included at least 21 students working on them who received mentoring in research methods and in disseminating results. This paper describes important lessons learned, including the importance of: allotting sufficient time to recruit reviewers; recruiting reviewers through a variety of sources and methods; and assisting PIs in engaging with research administration staff at Portland State University and partner institutions. Challenges included: finding an optimal timeline that was neither too compressed nor too stretched out; encouraging applicants from distant partner institutions to apply and keeping them engaged and retained through the entire process; and assisting PIs from partner institutions to efficiently utilize Portland State University's sponsored projects department if similar resources were not available at their home institutions. Our goal is to provide guidance and insights to faculty and research-administration staff at other institutions interested in replicating or adapting EXITO's program to enhance institutional research capacity

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