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Easing the burden of grant administration

If you're a researcher who receives federal funding, you probably feel that you're spending almost as much time dealing with administration as doing science. Last week, two subcommittees of the House Science Committee held a joint hearing to look into the problem.

The hearing was prompted by the release of a report by the National Science Board (NSB) entitled "Reducing Investigators' Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research." Members of Congress were uniformly troubled with a key figure cited in the report—that 42 percent of researchers' time is spent on administrative tasks such as grant applications and reporting.

Subcommittee Chair Paul Braun (R-Ga.) said, "That's a massive drain on researchers' time and resources," and called scientists "the victims of bureaucratic red tape."

The NSB report suggests a number of initial steps in reducing that red tape. These include changes to the application system, such as asking applicants for less information until the proposal is likely to get funded; eliminating ineffective regulations; and harmonizing reporting requirements across agencies so that scientists don't need to learn new systems for each grant.

According to Arthur Bienenstock, one of the report's authors, serious progress on any of these recommendations would let investigators "focus on the science."

However, real reform on the administrative process of research funding has proven challenging in the past, and may become more difficult as scientists face a bevy of new and proposed rules. The House Science Committee's own FIRST Act proposes that NSF ensure that grants are "in the national interest," a determination that may impact the application and review process. Among other changes in the conduct of science, the White House has mandated that agencies provide for open access to publications and data, and the DATA Act has new requirements for financial reporting, as recently described on this blog. Applying for and managing a federal grant requires scientists to track and respond to this shifting playing field.

While the requisite paperwork grows for those with federal funding, the witnesses pointed out that more time is now required to get a federal grant in the first place. Gina Lee-Glauser from Syracuse University noted that some NSF and NIH programs have success rates in the single digits. Researchers spend huge amounts of time "submitting a greater number of proposals in order to just get one funded," she said.

Finding a way to implement the NSB recommendations won't be easy, and attempts to reform can create new problems. Susan Sedwick, speaking on behalf of the Federal Demonstration Partnership, cited a recent example of this in the Uniform Guidance recently issued by the Office of Management and Budget. The goal of the guidance was to provide a single, unified set of financial rules for the recipients of federal funds. While it contains some provisions that will ease reporting requirements, Sedwick said that implementing the new rules will require universities to purchase "costly information systems" and some changes, such as new guidance on procurement "will clearly have a negative impact on the performance and productivity of research."

The cost of this administrative overhead is substantial. Taken across the workforce of hundred of thousands of federally funded investigators, 42 percent of time spent on administration translates into millions of hours that the U.S.'s top scientific minds spend on paperwork instead of research. If any of the NSB's proposed efforts are successful, the next big breakthrough in science could simply be finding a way to cut back on bureaucracy.

AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan Leshner is a member of the NSB's Task Force on Administrative Burdens, which authored the report. An archived webcast of the House hearing is available on its website.

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