I recently attended the RMAS (Research Management and Administration System) launch event in London where I learned about the outcomes of the recent HEFCE-funded project and how RMAS can help people like me (research managers and administrators) better understand, track and integrate the vast and diverse array of research-related data in Higher Education.
Universities need this data for a number of reasons, including:
- to analyse and interpret success rates of research bids so we can see where more support is needed;
- to keep track of and audit research expenditure to ensure externally-funded projects are spending to budget;
- to feed into important external research-related returns, such as HESA, HEBCIS and REF;
- to ensure research projects are accurately costed;
- to make sure the research bidding and management process flows as smoothly as possible, minimizing the amount of data re-entry and hand-offs where possible;
- as the open access agenda becomes more important, to ensure all outputs from funded projects are published in open access journals or are available as full text on the institutional repository
What is RMAS?
RMAS started out as a HEFCE-funded project, led by the University of Exeter and also involving Kent and Sunderland, to scope and produce a business case for a pre-award to post-award (“cradle to grave”) research management and administration system for HEIs. Phase one of the project confirmed there was a need for this among HEIs and that no such system was currently available on the open market. Phase two, which has just been completed, sought to develop a solution and estimate potential savings across the sector if this were adopted.
So what’s the outcome? In short RMAS consists of three related elements:
- RMAS includes a procurement framework containing “best of breed” systems which provide solutions for the full research management process: pre-award to post-award. This will substantially reduce the costs of procuring research management and administration software by effectively allowing HEIs to pick from a “catalogue” of options for each stage in the process. It also ensures RMAS is “modular”, allowing HEIs to start from different places and pick what they need. Suppliers in the framework include: UNIT4 (Agresso), Atira (Pure), SmartSimple (RMS360).
- RMAS is a set of integration tools and methodologies based on a centrally hosted Enterprise Service Bus which allows existing and newly procured corporate and research management systems to be integrated and communicate with each other.
- The above elements are built around a standard format for research data, CERIF (Common European Research Information Format), which is an open, internationally recognised standard. This means that research data can be integrated and different systems can communicate more easily. In essence, it ensures that all the different elements of the RMAS system “speak the same language”.
What’s the problem?
Research carried out by the RMAS pathfinders across the sector confirmed that different HEIs used a variety of different products for different stages of the process (e.g. project costing, academic expertise, post award management, outcomes and outputs) and that there was often very little, if any, integration between the systems used. This means that data relating to research awards, for example, frequently needs to be re-keyed at various stages to ensure it is correctly imported into the relevant system.
This situation is compounded by the fact that the various HR and finance systems which also feed information into (and out of) the research management process are similarly diverse and lack integration with the various research management software solutions on the market. Moreover, different institutions have different processes and procedures – for example, approvals and submission.
In short, HEIs are all starting from a different place and no two institutions use the same set of systems and processes for research management and administration. In addition, institutions have in many cases invested heavily in their existing systems and tools and would be reluctant to throw this away. The RMAS team therefore determined that what was needed was a methodology of integrating these existing tools, rather than developing and introducing an entirely new system from scratch.
What are the benefits?
Potentially, these are huge. The RMAS pathfinder institutions (Exeter, Kent and Sunderland) have made the following estimates in terms of savings as well as associated data quality and planning improvements:
You could expect the following chain benefits from implementing RMAS modules:
- Procurement savings of around £35,000 for each OJEU tender
- Procurement savings of around £14,000 for each sub-OJEU tender
- Savings for a medium sized university of £75,000 per annum for each ofthe RMAS modules that they use.
The operational savings equate to:
- £60 per application for proposal management systems
- £140 per academic or £70 per project for post-award management systems
- £70 per academic for outputs management systems.
Ripple benefits that the pathfinder institutions have experienced include:
- Improvements in data quality in corporate systems such as HR, Finance and Project systems
- Improved accuracy of Business Intelligence and planning
- Value added through redirection of valuable resource
- A flexible platform that can be readily adapted to any future requirements
- A positive user experience facilitating future developments and new system deployments.
These benefits should be understood in terms of the wider policy drive in UK HE to share services and become more efficient. HEFCE are clear that RMAS can contribute towards this goal.
There was a strong steer from HEFCE representatives on the day that the RMAS approach should be adopted across the sector. To this end, HEFCE have provided further transitional funding to retain the project coordinator for a year and to develop resources on the RMAS website, which includes an RMAS connector demo so you can see some of the principles in action.
However, it became clear on the day that for institutions to actually adopt an end-to-end RMAS-compliant system would require not only financial investment, in terms of procuring relevant software to plug gaps in the research management process, but also in terms of IT development time to build a “connector” to join up the various elements of research admin systems and HR, finance, etc. There will be resources available on the RMAS website to provide guidance and support for this, or alternatively JISC Nexus has been set up as a subscription service to do the same job.
In the question time following the event, one delegate made the very sensible point that they wouldn’t be doing anything further on this until after the REF, for fear of introducing new processes and jeopardising data quality. Whatever the timescales, it seems clear that RMAS is going to play a role in the future of research management in UK HE.