AER19 Blog Squad: Challenges and Opportunities at Small Research Institutions

The IRB at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is quite small, and I was curious how we compared with other small institutions. As a young professional in a single-staff IRB office, I was looking for tricks of the trade to improve my limited capabilities and address challenges that arise. The presenters facilitating the 2019 Advancing Ethical Research Conference (AER19) session I attended, “Challenges and Opportunities at Small Research Institutions,” were from Washington and New Hampshire, so it was comforting to see similar challenges across the country, not just plaguing the Midwest. 

We all seem to have budget, staffing, and misconception issues. I don’t believe these to be unique to small institutions alone; these issues can be linked to a campus’s environment, culture, and history regardless of size. However, I believe the size of our institution can affect how we remedy these and other challenges. Larger institutions typically have larger budgets and staff at their disposal, even if their resources are limited. So how do you improve with one staff member, a part-time chair, no operating budget, and campus morale is low?

One thing I’ve learned is that time moves slower in higher education, resulting in slower change. At small institutions, I’ve learned that persistence and patience is key to achieving improvement goals. Additionally, the level of support from higher administration directly affects the outcome of change as it filters through campus departments. This means communication is an important tool in advocating and managing change. How we communicate our deficiencies and opportunities determines the type of change on the horizon. At UWSP, the Chair and I work with the Institutional Official (IO) to communicate compliance-related issues and changes to campus colleges and departments. Messaging from higher authority goes farther than messaging from the IRB. And in my experience, the IO knows the institutional history, which can be used to help mitigate organizational conflicts. While we still have staffing and budgetary issues, misconceptions on campus have lessened with the help of a strong communicative relationship between research administration (me), the IRB Chair, and the IO.

When I first entered the field of research compliance, I was so gung-ho about improving upon our challenges and being helpful that I didn’t realize what it really took to make the most minor changes. So, something else I’ve learned is to initiate change in bite-sized chunks. When the entire program needs an overhaul, it’s important not to overwhelm yourself or your stakeholders. Overwhelming stakeholders will create confusion and anxiety, causing progress to stall and limiting the success of change. Even if you have a strategic plan, moving in incremental steps will ease the transition from one goal to another.

After attending this session, planning for 2020 and beyond, I intend to develop a plan to enact the strategies I learned about. By taking my time devising a plan to systematically integrate each opportunity in the IRB program, I can communicate my ambitions and solicit feedback from my colleagues fluidly while planning. Many opportunities discussed during the session can be acted on simultaneously, such as creating learning opportunities and collaborative support across campus when linked with effective communication practices, university mission, and the Battle Cry (Compliance! Compliance! Compliance!). Clear communication with campus stakeholders and planning small improvement objectives are effective measures when working against challenges like budget, capacity, and misconceptions.

Sierra Verbockel, BS, MPA is the Grants and Research Associate at University of Wisconsin (UW)-Stevens Point. She has been working in research administration since 2017, beginning as a research compliance assistant at UW-Oshkosh. She also has experience in grants administration. As a former student of UW-Oshkosh, she developed an interest in research, eventually conducting her own research studies on differential association theory.

Sierra achieved her master’s degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Nonprofit Management and Leadership in addition to a Baccalaureate degree in Human Services Leadership and Criminal Justice. Her research interests include community organization and development, employment-education mismatch, generational differences in the workplace, and emotional intelligence. Those interests carried into her career, where she works to make a difference in the lives of her colleagues as UWSP moves toward a more inclusive environment. She enjoys learning from those around her and creating new, more efficient ways of being successful-both as an individual person and as a member of the UWSP collective.

Members of PRIM&R’s Blog Squad and other guest contributors are valued members of our community willing to share their insights. The views expressed in their posts do not necessarily reflect those of PRIM&R or its employees.