Did you know that principal investigators (PIs) of federal research grants report spending 42 percent of their time on administrative tasks related to their funding? That's a huge chunk of time—especially considering that this is time that scientists cannot spend teaching classes, advising students, serving on university committees or running a lab. On May 1, the National Science Board (NSB) released a report [pdf] that provides some possible solutions to this problem.
What exactly are the administrative tasks that are eating up so much time? According to the report, these tasks include "financial management; the grant proposal process; progress and other outcome reporting; human subjects research and institutional review boards (IRBs); time and effort reporting; research involving animals and institutional animal care and use committees (IACUCs); and personnel management."
The report says unnecessary administrative burden could cost billions of dollars in lost productivity over the course of a decade. But this might be a tough nut to crack. The percentage of time spent on administrative tasks related to federal funding has remained unchanged—42 percent—from 2005 to 2012. This is despite coordinated efforts by the Federal government to reduce this burden.
Before diving into the report's recommendations, it's important to point out that the NSB seeks only to eliminate unnecessary administrative work, specifically, "excess regulations and requirements that slow the pace of research and do not improve either scientific or regulatory outcomes."
So what are the recommendations? A brief summary:
1. Strip down grant application requirements to only the information needed to evaluate the scientific merit of the proposal (other information can be provided once there has been a decision to fund the grant).
2. Simplify and shorten annual progress reports.
3. Have the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) review and consider suggested changes to the NSF proposal process.
4. Implement a new system for time and effort reporting. (These tasks were rated as very time-consuming and ambiguous by PIs).
5. Streamline human subjects protection-reporting by requiring only one Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocol for multi-state trials and by eliminating continuing review for minimal-risk protocols.
6. Evaluate animal welfare reporting systems. The report says animal research regulations have "grown increasingly complex," with multiple levels of regulation. For a larger discussion about this issue, see this recent article [pdf].
7. Do not implement the controversial, changed conflict-of-interest policies used by the Public Health Services in other federal agencies (and evaluate the PHS policies themselves).
8. Reevaluate safety and security requirements—some of which may be appropriate for industrial settings but not for academic labs.
9. Streamline the grant submission system so that it is more consistent across agencies.
10. Make audits more consistent and streamlined and consider requiring receipts and justification for large purchases only.
11. Create a "permanent high level, inter-agency, inter-sector committee" that will "create a priority list of regulations and policies that should be eliminated, modified, or harmonized to reduce the administrative workload of PIs and institutions."
12. Encourage home institutions to avoid adding unnecessary reporting requirements.
13. Form collaborations among institutions and government agencies so that model programs (for IRB review, for example) can be identified and disseminated to other institutions.
14. Develop high-quality human and animal subject-protocols that can be rapidly approved.
Time will tell which of these suggestions actually are implemented and whether or not they are successful. There is no question, however, that changes are needed. Given the current funding climate, it is likely that the administrative burden for PIs has climbed higher than the 42 percent reported in 2012, the last time the survey was performed.