Online research management tool benefits Carolina, entire
To lead requires being out front. But
being a leading public university, Andy Johns has learned, means something
Andy Johns led the development and implementation of RAMSeS.
For Carolina, being out front creates an
opportunity to show others a better way. And it is out of that tradition that
the idea of sharing
the University-grown RAMSeS (Research
Administration Management System and
Johns, assistant vice chancellor for research and director
of Information Systems and Management, has led the development and
implementation of RAMSeS, the Office of Research Information Systems’ online
research management tool. The University began to use RAMSeS to replace Coeus,
a grant management program developed by MIT, in the summer of 2006.
Over the past two years, RAMSeS has been integrated
throughout campus and has become the electronic linchpin connecting the entire
research enterprise at Carolina. It is now used to handle all aspects of the
research process, from grants management to compliance and clinical
trials management to intellectual property
And in recent months, University leaders have decided to
share RAMSeS with other universities, starting with the sister campuses within
the UNC system. That process is already under way at UNC-Greensboro,
UNC-Charlotte and North Carolina A&T, Johns said, and it will be completed
throughout the entire UNC system by September 2009. Carolina is also sharing
RAMSeS with Ohio State University and plans to share it with the University of
Arizona and the eight universities that comprise the University
of Tennessee system.
“There are many ways that Carolina can be a leading public
university,” Johns said. “This is just one more way.”
At the January meeting of the University Board of Trustees,
Chancellor James Moeser recognized Johns for his contributions toward this
But Johns is not simply being modest when he says the
accolades directed at him make him uncomfortable. Though appreciated, he said,
singling him out conveys the false impression that he was the only person doing
the work that has made RAMSeS such a success.
“Building an effective team has been critical
for all this to happen, and I really want to
acknowledge all the rest of the team who are a part of this,” Johns said.
The search for a solution
Johns is also quick to acknowledge that the idea for this
did not come to him all at once, but through a process of discovery that
revealed in fits and starts what the possibilities might be.
Less than a decade ago, campus research
offices had no way to interact electronically, which made it difficult to share
information. Most processes used to share information were done by hand, with
paper, and were painstakingly slow, he said.
Coeus, the software system introduced at Carolina in 1999,
was once billed as the grant management software program that would push
Carolina’s research enterprise into the electronic age.
But by 2005, Johns had become convinced that Coeus, because
of its inflexible format, was not up to the task. And he also understood that
any software program offered by any other
national vendor would likely be inadequate, too. He may have been in the best
position to know.
That’s because, the year before, Vice Chancellor for
Research and Graduate Studies Tony Waldrop hired Johns to run the newly
created Office of Research Information Systems.
As director of the office, Johns’ mission was to design and
implement the tools needed to create a unified business process for research
administration. That process had to be capable not only of supporting all the
offices on campus that had direct ties to research, but also of supporting the
many faculty and staff who transact business with those same offices, Johns
The confidence to build such a system from scratch was
predicated on some of Johns’ past successes since he started work here in fall
1998, the summer after he graduated from Carolina.
After spending two years working for Information Technology
Services, Johns was hired as the director of operations for the Office of
Technology Transfer, where he was charged with tracking all the
University-developed research that could be marketed in the private sector.
Even then, Waldrop began calling on Johns for his technical
expertise. First, Johns improved the capacity of the information management
system used for the care of laboratory animals — an action prompted by
allegations leveled against the University by PETA (People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals). He also was tasked with designing a system that could
address the various security challenges related to research that emerged after
And from this track record of success came the impetus to
develop RAMSeS, which over the past two years has proven itself up to the many
tasks it was created to perform.
As an electronic management system, RAMSeS not only saves
time by centralizing research data, it can also automatically route
internal processing form paperwork everywhere it needs to go in the proper
sequence — and keep researchers abreast of its progress.
RAMSeS centralizes data so that research administration
knows what the institution as a whole is doing, Johns said, and it has become
quicker and easier to catch any compliance errors.
Its user-friendly one-click options guide users through the
proposal process, such as create new proposal, checklists and a submit button
that lets users know when they are through.
RAMSeS features a Web portal that allows investigators and
research administrators to review all the research they are associated with and
get project status updates. They are also able to view the details of a grant
proposal or clinical trial.
Beware of pitfalls
Johns said another strength of RAMSeS is its infinite
adaptability. At a growing, complex
research university like Carolina, systems will continually need to be tailored
Good technology, Johns said, is built on the platform of
good communication between
people, or in this instance, between IT specialists
who understand RAMSeS and the researchers and administrators who depend on it.
“You can take the best software in the world and give it to
any entity and the software by itself isn’t going to solve whatever problems it
has,” Johns said. “You begin to solve problems by a detailed analysis of a
business process. The software is nothing more than the tool that allows you to
implement the process.”
This need for communication and adaptability made it very
difficult for a national vendor to come up with a one-size-fits-all
information management system. As Carolina continues to share RAMSeS with more
and more campuses, Johns is keenly aware that Carolina must not overreach or
overpromise. If national vendors were not able to meet the needs of the entire
academic research market, Carolina must avoid going down the same path.
It must also balance the value of serving the state with the
idea of sharing the system with competing institutions nationwide. That
issue was addressed by sharing the model with campuses within the UNC system
By sharing this management platform within the UNC system
and aggregating the research data from all 17 campuses, state leaders will be
better able to showcase the breadth of research expertise that North Carolina
This platform also lends itself to the
regional approaches to economic development that UNC President Erskine Bowles
has sought through the UNC Tomorrow initiative. At the same time, RAMSeS will
make it easier for universities in the UNC system to seek the kind of
interdisciplinary and inter-institutional grants that funding agencies want.
When RAMSeS is shared with universities from outside the
state, he said, it is reasonable to expect the University to make money. It is
no less reasonable to expect that Carolina use those revenues to continue to
subsidize and enhance the operations here.
It all goes back to being a leading public university, Johns
said. Carolina’s mission is not to make money; it is to make a difference. And
for Johns, being able to make that kind of difference is the reason he is here.