If you were to ask a graduate student what she expects to spend 42 percent of her time on as a science professor, her response might be research, teaching, or grant writing. It probably wouldn’t be administrative activities, such as documenting personnel expenses, formatting grant proposals, and drafting biographical sketches. This burden, which is a necessity to receive federal funding, was the subject of a recent House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology hearing.
Expert witnesses highlighted two reports released by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this year that examine these requirements and provide recommendations for improvement. Mr. Jim Luther (Associate Vice President for Finance and Compliance Officer, Duke University) supported one of NAS’s recommendations for Congress to create a Research Policy Board to improve collaboration between academics and federal funding agencies. He stated that this would “increase the likelihood of achieving thoughtful and effective policy outcomes.” Dr. Larry Faulkner (Chair, Committee on Federal Research Regulations and Reporting Requirements, NAS) assured Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Comstock (VA-10) that the board would not create another layer of bureaucracy because it would serve to coordinate efforts between the federal government and researchers rather than approve measures and changes. Some legislators have taken this recommendation to heart; Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (IL-3) introduced the bipartisan University Regulation Streamlining and Harmonization Act of 2016 (H.R. 5583) in June in response to the NAS and GAO reports. The bill calls for the establishment of a Research Policy Board under the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which would provide a way for researchers to communicate with federal officials to suggest ways to consolidate and integrate regulations for more streamlined processes.
Mr. John Neumann (Director, Natural Resources and Environment, GAO) explained a problem highlighted in the GAO report — paperwork is not standardized across federal agencies, even when requirements are identical. Dr. Ángel Cabrera (President, George Mason University) claimed that the “inordinate amount of time” spent on this unstandardized paperwork is “compounded by the fact that the success rate of awards in many agencies is getting lower while the time and cost of applying is getting higher.” He argued that this paradox discourages scientists from taking time to dive into new research opportunities. Dr. Cabrera also noted that this could be having an outsized impact on younger scientists not familiar with these requirements, who could view them as “another … insurmountable barrier to what they want to do, which is to spend time in the lab.”
Dr. Faulkner highlighted the overarching message that “the continuing expansion of federal regulations and requirements is diminishing the effectiveness of the U.S. research enterprise and decreasing the return on the federal investment in basic and applied research by diverting investigators’ time and institutional resources away from research and toward administrative and compliance matters.” All witnesses and members at the hearing agreed on the importance of streamlining administrative requirements across federal agencies. Ranking Member Lipinski claimed that the committee is “engaged on this issue and will continue to provide oversight and fix problems as they are identified.” If changes are made to the regulatory processes, future scientists will be able to spend more time in the field or in their labs making advancements to improve our understanding and knowledge of our world.