Spotlight: Gretchen Kiser, Evolution of the Research Development Office

Gretchen Kiser, PhD, has served as the executive director of the UCSF Research Development Office (RDO) for more than 10 years and is a member of the UCSF Precision Medicine Platform Committee.

How did you come to be at UCSF?

I was hired to head up the Research Development Office (RDO), which was a new idea at the time. I had been consulting and looking for both a research development position and to return to an academic research environment. A research development position at UCSF was a perfect fit for me since it focused on biomedical research, which is my background, at one of the top research universities in the world.

Gretchen Kiser
Gretchen Kiser, PhD

Theresa O'Brien (associate chancellor) was aware of the burgeoning research development field and suggested to Jeffrey Bluestone (former executive vice chancellor and provost - EVCP) that UCSF could benefit from a research development office for a couple of purposes. One was to help with the administrative burden of putting together large multi-investigator, high budget grant proposals. The program that I’ve built within the RDO supports large grant preparation through project management, technical editing and advisory roles for the production of the narrative portions of these grants. The program also helps get all the people in the room (investigators, grants administrators) and figure out how much lead time and all the items you need – approvals, letters, grant resources and equipment language – to get one of these big grants together. Sometimes our associate professors, for example, are getting ready to do that first big UO1 or PO1, and they're apprehensive because it’s a big administrative burden and they need help even just thinking about what's involved. They may need tips to both ease their mind that it's all doable and to lower the administrative burden for them to try it out. The Research Development Office can help PIs with these tasks and that was a major driver for establishing an RDO.

Secondly, there were two important existing programs with related programmatic goals that needed an administrative home – the limited submission program (LSP) and the intramural funding resource allocation program (RAP). These two functions are quite commonly found in research development offices across the country. It made sense then to bring those into a newly established RDO.

How would you describe what Research Development is?

Research development is a field within research administration that emerged about 15 years ago, distinguishing itself from traditional research administration as dealing with activities needed further upstream of grant submission and requiring more strategic, less transactional input. This work is referred to differently across the country - sometimes called “research strategy” or “research special projects,” but underneath it's all research development. A professional organization (NORDP, see below) was founded by those people who found themselves being involved in these types of roles within research administration on their campuses. Many were in dean's offices, central roles, or large grant program PIs or directors who needed to develop and implement programs to support grants or larger campus strategic goals. People in these kinds of roles were often faculty because traditionally the research development functions sat within faculty administrative roles.

It is part of the reason why many of us who are in research development are traditionally research trained with PhDs, or on the humanities side, PhDs or fine arts Master’s and JDs. This is a different type of research administration, one that is more strategic in its value proposition.

We, in tight collaboration with our campus partners, are in tune with valuable insight coming from the government and funders, the strategic goals of the institutional research enterprise, and with the individual efforts going on in different departments or different labs. We can bring these things together.

Please tell us more about the national research development landscape.

Around 2010, the founder of the National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP), Holly Falk-Krzesinski, was at Northwestern (now at Elsevier), and saw the need to support a type of professional such as a faculty member who shifted over to an administrative role or someone who just had a more strategic function within classical research administration. A group of us found that every university has these needs and our organization of professionals called has grown to more than 1,100 people. We are at virtually every research university in the country and have strong connections internationally, where research development is often called research management. The organization itself has a strong culture of collaboration, typical of researchers in general, and is a generous, deep and broad source of methods and knowledge that we share readily with each other in homage to the aphorism that a rising tide lifts all boats. We don't have to reinvent the wheel at every research institution and bigger institutions can help smaller ones by providing programmatic models, tools, advice, and connections.

I've served in a leadership role within NORDP over the last 10 years and I'm very tied into that network of people. I have actively participated in their annual conferences by giving and attending presentations, posters, workshops, and even by chairing the conference one year. I’ve been honored to be elected as a NORDP Fellow in 2020 and recipient of their Leadership Award in 2021. We also have a strong University of California (UC) research development network. We meet a couple of times a year, where we share notes on how to help each other on the federal, state, and UC-wide level - how can we collaborate more effectively together by serving as points of contacts for our various campuses? Can we as UC institutions compete for large program funding by working together?

And the Research Allocation Program (RAP)?

RAP was developed at the UCSF Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) as a program to efficiently manage intramural funding competitions campus-wide - a brainstorm of Kathy Giacomini, Dan Lowenstein, Paul Volberding (Emeritus), and Fred Waldman (Senate Emeritus). As an NCATS CTSA Institute, the CTSI develops programs focused on operational improvement and then rolls them out for broader use. RAP is a great example of how that happened at UCSF.

RAP is a consortium dedicated to the management of intramural funding competitions at UCSF. It's unique as far as intramural funding competitions go because: (1) We have 11 standing review committees on different areas of research and this allows the pool of reviewers to consolidate their proposal review service to two set times per year; (2) Campus funds, representing approximately 30 different sources from large grant pilot grant projects flow-through dollars to campus support funds like those through the Academic Senate or School of Medicine’s Research Evaluation and Allocation Committee (REAC) program can leverage the experienced advertising, submission and review processes of the central RAP program; (3) Applicants, through the central RAP electronic submission tool and process have access to a broad menu of grant mechanism offerings; (4) Applicants also have increased chances of getting funded because of another RAP unique feature – the “horse-trading session”. After reviewer scoring and discussion is complete, we convene all the participating RAP funders and the list of all the scored proposals around the table. The researcher applies to a grant mechanism and there are set sponsors for that mechanism, but anyone around the table like the School of Medicine or Academic Senate – programs that have more discretionary research funds can look at any of these and decide whether to sponsor them if it fits their needs and goals.

For example, the anti-racism grant was officially sponsored by Academic Senate, REAC and CTSI. However, the National Center of Excellence in Women's Health funded another proposal because it came in as an anti-racism grant but related to health outcomes for women. It fit in their program and they wanted to be leaning in to diversity and inclusion, so it was a win-win.

Describe how the RDO was involved with launching the Anti-Racism Grant and the Marcus Program in Precision Medicine (MPPMI).

A research development office can be used to pilot new ideas or strategies in support of campus initiatives. We have nimbleness within, for example, the RDO’s RAP program to be able to stand up pilot funding like the Anti-Racism Research grants quickly and then iteratively try variations. We, in tight collaboration with our campus partners, are in tune with valuable insight coming from the government and funders, the strategic goals of the institutional research enterprise, and with the individual efforts going on in different departments or different labs. We can bring these things together.

For example, our recent anti-racism grant initiative, strongly aligned with campus anti-structural racism goals, was something that we could stand up within RAP in a timely manner and leverage different funding sources across campus. If we did not have an intramural funding program within a broad research development context this would not have happened so quickly if at all. Now our new Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism in the Office of Research, Tung Nguyen, has an example of a working programmatic plan that he can leverage in future. It works and a framework is already set. Sometimes, moving the whole campus armada takes some time and more money to make big shifts. We can test ideas at a smaller scale with a couple of smaller “ships”. We think about things strategically in a research development program - how can I align the things that we're doing within our RDO programs to fit overall campus goals? What information can we learn quickly to help inform a larger effort, to help inform the armada? This is one of the things about an RDO that can be incredibly valuable.

A central research development office has the know-how to help develop and enable funding for projects across the full precision medicine continuum from fundamental biology to ethics, social sciences, legal and policy arenas.

The Marcus Program in Precision Medicine Innovation (MPPMI) was similar in its innovative start – the donor generous support of George and Judy Marcus had interest in funding something important and valuable. Michael Faber, former associate vice chancellor of University Development and Alumni Relations, came to Dr. Keith Yamamoto (currently Vice Chancellor for Science Policy and Strategy), to put something together. Dr. Yamamoto and I brainstormed the Marcus program founded on the idea of “fueling innovation in precision medicine by fostering creative, high risk, high impact team science projects supporting the precision medicine continuum - grounded in basic science but extending to patient relevance.” The MPPMI underscores that our discovery engine is inextricably tied to our translation engine and then to our patient care mission. A central research development office has the know-how to help develop and then implement such a program. Here too, we have iterated on the design of the program to offer grants that enable funding for projects across the full precision medicine continuum from those working on the fundamental biology and molecular underpinnings of disease to those examining the ethics, social sciences, legal and policy arenas for precision health. We did this in recognition that research in all the areas of the precision medicine continuum is critically important to achieving the goals and aims of precision medicine broadly.

Similarly, we just piloted a new Marcus Award mechanism, the MP IDEA Award – an inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism grant mechanism to address the fact that we have a diversity and inclusion problem in precision medicine and biomedical research generally. We have failed to represent the full population diversity in much of our research and this impacts research conclusions, and the tools and regimens we have developed for health care. Our MP IDEA grant is meant to address how we solve this piece of structural racism, how we build diversity, inclusion and equity into the way we do our research. I'm really excited to see what kinds of projects come out of our incredibly creative researchers rethinking the way they design experiments, use tools, and analyze data, toward this health equity goal. One of the great things about programs like MPPMI is that we have creative wiggle room to try things out so we can then have a model and information to design next steps toward even greater impact.

Are there other universities implementing an IDEA type of fund?

We're a leader. I think some of the flexibility that Jeffrey Bluestone and Keith Yamamoto made possible within the Research Development Office at UCSF has led directly to part of this leadership. The Team Science program that I developed for the RDO was meant to support cross-disciplinary, inter- and intra-campus, collaborative efforts – getting people together to network, to talk about new approaches or spark new collaborations. We had several events to foster networking across the “geographic divide” of UCSF campuses in San Francisco as a way for people to know each other. Someone may need a computational scientist. If they're a clinical researcher who is focused on the patient, it can be valuable for them to have even a 15-minute conversation with a couple follow-ups with somebody who's looking at the gene pathway implicated in that patient population, and vice versa. Valuable insights can be made by looking at things from a different perspective with people who are equally interested, and who can make those leaps with you. You need to be talking together for those “Oh, wow!” moments to happen.

We didn't have a program for that on our campus before, and that's something that Keith Yamamoto gave me the freedom to try out when he was the VCR. UCSF already has a very collaborative nature and it just needed a framework. 

Can you describe the Team Science program?

We do networking activities. We bring people together through different types of formats: speed- networking events, topical symposia or workshops .  it's part of the RD toolbox. This team science effort involves fostering collaboration across different disciplines, but also getting people together to talk about gaps in their field of research or overarching grand challenges. We get them together in a way that helps them talk ‘blue sky’ with a pragmatic end. I think RD can help drive amazing ideas, innovations and creativity into something practical like, “How can I apply for a grant that's going to get that funded?” or “Can we hook into an industry partner that's going to be able to help make that happen?” It's about providing a framework to allow networking to happen productively at an institution where I don't have to force people to want to work together. “Tell me where to be” - that's part of what we provide in the team science program. For some of those events, we used to offer post-event $2,000 seed grants for testing feasibility of ideas that came out of the networking. The discussion itself can spark a new direction.

Please tell us more about your work on aligning biomedical academic recognition and reward policies.

For us to ask researchers to be community-engaged, include broader impacts projects in the research programs, and account for diversity and inclusion in all types of work, the university promotion and recognition systems need to value those as well. We understand that every investigator, every faculty member is a whole person with different sets of talents and interests in addition to their research expertise.

Today there are many different activities that an investigator has a responsibility to participate in – service, advocacy, leadership, and catalyzing others. If you're not a very good public speaker or you have no interest in that it's okay, there are other places that you can serve, and they all have value. Our compensation and recognition practices within academia have largely represented only those that develop new scholarship or result in publications. It's taken us awhile to figure out how to value other contributions. For example, our own Bob Wachter became the voice of the nation during the coronavirus pandemic. How do we recognize people like that in academia? How do we recognize and compensate these non-traditional contributions as being so critically important?

If Bob Wachter was able to get 100 people, more like thousands of people, to do the right thing during the pandemic – get vaccinated or tested, sequester yourself away from others – that role is important. How do we determine what should be considered when a person is being reviewed by their peers for having impacted the research community? You need to consider the portfolio of activity that a faculty member is contributing. That's why Dr. Yamamoto and I have been developing a framework to drive the academy to be a place where all kinds of things are represented for acknowledgment and compensation.

UCSF Research Development Office is located in Genentech Hall, Mission Bay.

Can you tell us more about rethinking academic recognition and the “coalition of the willing”?

While we’d like everyone to adopt a new set of compensation and recognition policies, we thought we’d initiate the conversation with those that agree that we cannot afford to sit back on our laurels; just like we need to push the boundaries of science, we also need to build public trust, community participation, health equity, and inclusion within the research enterprise. The pandemic caught us on our heels because we learned that the community and legislators didn’t believe us. Why is it that we hadn't contributed more to creating a society in which people understand the value of what we in research and academia bring to the table?

You cannot build trust in a day. There are clearly things we must do differently. We can't sit back and say “they're ignorant” and watch harm come to people. We have a responsibility to put some windows in the ivory tower and we need to change our culture and systems internally to incentivize and recognize the non-traditional academic efforts. If someone spends a good percentage of their time, like Peter Chin-Hong, communicating public health messages through public TV, radio, etc. we should have a concrete way to support that, recognize it, and then allow that to feed into their promotion packages.

If we lean into our university as an institution that actively seeks community engagement and supports health equity and inclusive excellence through the efforts of its faculty, then research, healthcare, AND public trust will be improved. We all benefit.

RDO - well-informed, highly skilled, expert friends.

In research development we sit at this edge between administrative roles within the research enterprise and bench. It's part of our job to foster a full spectrum of institutional efforts involving a broad array of research partners to optimize the research impact and the quality and innovation of the research itself.

Learn more about the Marcus Program in Precision Medicine Innovation:

The Marcus Program in Precision Medicine Innovation, funded through the generous support of George and Judy Marcus, has been fostering creative, high risk, high impact team science projects at UCSF since 2016. The program just announced its latest call for proposals with a new category in Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-racism (IDEA). The other three mechanisms are Seeding Bold Ideas (SBI) and Transformative Integrated Research (TIR); along with ELSI in Precision Medicine (Ethical, Legal, Social Implication, Implementation).