Border collie running across grass

This Halloween, I’m dressing up as a border collie

Border collie herding sheep

I’m not one of those people who love Halloween, so I’m probably not really going to don a costume today. But if I were to dress up as a border collie, my experience as a research administrator would help me embody the character. How are research administrators (RAs) similar to border collies? Read on to find out.


Border collies are perhaps best known for their ability to keep a flock together and moving in the same direction. Much like border collies, research administrators help keep their communities moving toward strategic goals established by their institutions’ leadership. We develop policies and procedures that guide researchers in certain directions, we create checklists that keep faculty headed in the right direction with proposal submissions, and we design programs and incentives that encourage the pursuit of certain paths.


Border collies help keep their flocks safe from predators. Safety is also an essential function for research administrators. The policies and procedures we develop and enforce are created, in part, to protect our researchers and institutions from outside forces that could harm them. Our guidance documents and decision trees help investigators make informed decisions about things that impact their research. We work to ensure no one is caught unawares by disadvantageous sponsor terms or becomes subject to legal action as a result of inadvertently violating federal and state law. Those of us in research compliance protect the human and animal subjects that are part of our research communities by seeing that relevant federal guidelines are followed. Contract negotiators strategize to balance the interests of the investigator with those of the institution to arrive at an optimal final agreement.


Sheep may give more thought to the border collie’s potential to nip at their heels than they do to her potential to herd them to new grazing grounds, but that’s another essential function for these dogs. A flock that keeps grazing the same depleted pasture will not be nearly as robust as one that has access to fresh forage. The same is true for research, and RAs pave the way for new opportunities. Investigators often see ours as the office of “no,” but the truth is that RAs find creative ways to make “yes”s happen. Without the financial management expertise of post-award staff, far fewer sponsors would be willing to award funds in support of the research at our institutions. Without the keen eyes of pre-award staff, far more proposals would be returned without review for non-compliance. Without those who manage research compliance and review protocols, fewer studies would meet the ethical requirements of sponsors. And, of course, without the dedication and determination of research development staff, our institutions’ investigators would have access to – and be competitive for – far fewer opportunities.


With a border collie on the job, no sheep is ever left behind. The dog helps keep the flock intact by spurring on stragglers and rounding up those who have become lost. RAs also spur on stragglers. We search for those who are lost, reaching out to check on investigators we haven’t heard from in a while. We encourage those who got disappointing reviewer comments to take those comments to heart, tweak the proposal, and resubmit. Finally, we work to remove barriers for those who might not be submitting proposals at all.


Border collies use their experience and intuition to determine when one of their flock has crossed an unseen boundary and to recognize where their pasture ends and the next begins. Likewise, research administrators – whose unofficial motto is “it depends” – are relied upon to know where the boundaries are. Where does funding cross the line from gift to grant? When does one use a vendor vs. issuing a subaward agreement? What, exactly, are the allowable and allocable expenses that can be included in a budget?

Although border collies have a natural instinct for herding, it often takes a lot of time and effort to develop a dog’s skills so that she becomes a true partner. Likewise, research administrators devote a lot of time and effort to developing our skills. We are always thinking, learning, and growing so that we can own our place as true partners to our investigators and our institutions. Without us, the research enterprise would be more chaotic and less productive.

Adapted from “Research Without Border Collies,” written by Heather Beattey Johnston and Robyn Remotigue and appearing in the Oct./Nov. 2019 issue of NCURA Magazine.

Running border collie photo via Pixabay. Shepherding photo by SheltieBoy via Flickr. Both used under Creative Commons license.

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