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Federally Funded U.S. Research Grants Remain Mired in “Red Tape,” AAAS Contends

U.S. scientific advances are being slowed by “excessive, redundant, ineffective reporting and assurance requirements imposed both by government agencies and the universities where research is being conducted,” AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner wrote in a commentary published 3 December by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The piece, co-authored by Steven J. Fluharty, senior vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania, contended that “such wastefulness is unacceptable” at a time of severely constrained budgets. Fluharty and Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science, cited a survey released in 2007 by the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP), which found that 42% of a U.S. scientist’s research time is spent on administrative tasks. By comparison, American scientists were investing 18% of their research time on administrative tasks two decades earlier.

Too much red tape can quickly add unnecessary costs to federal research grants, Leshner and Fluharty noted: In the influential National Research Council (NRC) report, Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to our Nation’s Prosperity and Security, one public university said its research-related administrative costs had climbed from $3.5 million in 2005 to nearly $6 million in 2010. Another institution reported that its compliance and quality assurance costs had increased from approximately $3 million in 2000 to $12.5 million in 2010. The FDP survey estimated that researchers’ time spent on administrative tasks was equivalent to $97 million in salary support. Moreover, that assessment looked only at the administrative hours logged by the principal researchers, excluding the administrative investments of laboratory staff, trainees, or administrators hired to help with the ever-increasing array of reporting and assurance requirements.

Alan I. Leshner (left) and Steven J. Fluharty

“No one is recommending doing away with regulations that ensure accountability to funding agencies and the public, or that genuinely protect us from dangers that can accompany some research,” Leshner and Fluharty emphasized in their Chronicle essay. “But many sets of rules are redundant and wasteful since researchers are often required to complete numerous versions of forms that cover the same topics for different agencies.”

Research involving human subjects and dual-use biological research are only two among many examples of fields that could benefit from streamlined reporting, according to the Chronicle essay. Leshner and Fluharty pointed to a 2010 report, which found that the financial and administrative burdens on research institutions could be eased by “harmonizing select agent policies across all relevant agencies, and by building a common regulatory structure for safety and security of laboratory hazards.” Rules intended to ensure the safety of human subjects also could be strengthened if, for instance, multiple participating institutions did not have to undertake many separate study assessments by different Institutional Review Boards.

The Obama Administration, the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, and subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) have all expressed concerns about the administrative burden tied to federal research grants. In response to such concerns, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is now working on a coordinated set of instructions related to federal grants awarded to universities and nonprofit institutions, Leshner and Fluharty reported.

They called on scientists and the science-interested public to weigh in on the issue. Input is now being sought by the House subcommittee. In addition, the OMB will open a 60-day comment period as soon as that agency has finalized a draft proposal. (Log onto the subcommittee site to share comments with the subcommittee. Watch, too, for OMB’s forthcoming proposal; enter “OMB” as your search term.)

“Streamlined and harmonized processes would boost productivity as well as the morale of researchers responsible for innovations that improve our world,” Leshner and Fluharty said.


Read the full Chronicle of Higher Education commentary by Alan I. Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science. [Also available as a PDF].