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In defense of the research manager and administrative assistant positions in academia

I just ran a workshop at CIDE on the governance of e-waste in Mexico and the US. This workshop is a component of a project that was funded by a Collaborative Grant of the University of California UCMEXUS/CONACYT programme. The intellectual input was provided by my co-principal investigator, Kate O’Neill from University of California Berkeley, and myself. But all the logistics were undertaken by my administrative assistant (Nora Salazar) and my research assistant (Luis Alberto Hernandez). EVERYTHING. I mean, ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. Nora and Luis kept a vigilant eye on the budget, made sure to submit invoice requests, communicated with our financial services offices, communicated with each one of the workshop participants, ensured we had a budget and menus for lunch, dinner and the closing toast. It’s the work of the administrative assistants and research manager what makes these events look so easy to run.

UC MEXUS CONACYT E Waste Workshop July 2016 082

Nora chased contractors, vendors, supervised that the workshop took place flawlessly, booked spaces, coordinated with Luis to print out all the workshop materials, ensured that everything worked properly. Luis and Nora were able to lift all the administrative weight off of my shoulders. I wouldn’t be able to run a workshop or even hire people to provide services if I didn’t have an administrative assistant and a research manager. Two years ago, the main administrative coordinator for the Public Administration Division at CIDE in our Santa Fe campus, Wendy Veana, did all the logistical work for a workshop I ran on Mexican water governance. Again, I didn’t even need to *think* about the logistics of the workshop, all I had to do was provide a list of guests, and as Wendy told me, “Professor, all you need to do is tell me who to invite and I’ll run the workshop. You do the intellectual work, I do the logistics and administrative work.“. For my INECC project on climate policy evaluation I relied on Fabiola Mora, our superb administrative assistant at CIDE (the Region Centro campus). I simply can’t execute a funded project without administrative assistants and research managers.

Lunch Seminario Gobernanza del Agua

The problem I’ve seen in many granting agencies is that they don’t fund the research manager position. They also don’t provide support for ongoing administrative work. I am not 100% sure what the assumption is. I wonder if they believe that universities and research centres will provide this support out of the goodness of their heart. Admittedly, some (MANY) universities will demand a cut from the grant amount for overhead costs. But for example, CONACYT (the Mexican research council) doesn’t pay overhead. Many granting agencies and foundations don’t, or if they do, it’s a minimal portion (10% of the total grant costs).

Given my own experience with grant funding (I’ve had 2 external grants, 2 internal grants and 2 consultancy contracts in the past four years), I know for a fact that undertaking a funded project requires of scholars to be able to comply with all the administrative burden of submitting invoices, reimbursements, booking spaces, travel arrangements, payments for conference registration, flights, accomodation.

I don’t want to have to deal with this. It’s not what I did a PhD for.

I do hope that in the future, all granting agencies and foundations will understand that when a researcher budgets money for a research manager and/or an administrative assistant, it’s because we NEED them. I’m not a fan of administrative bloat, as they call it, but research managers, research assistants and administrative assistants? We certainly need them. I wouldn’t be as successful as I am if I hadn’t had the support staff that I did for the projects I’ve undertaken. I hope I’ll be able to continue to find a way to fund these positions.

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