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Study Requested on Regulatory Burdens Faced by Research Universities

Aline D. McNaull
Number 132 - October 23, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Chairman, Mo Brooks (R-AL), sent a letter on October 3, 2012 to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to request a review of the current regulations and reporting requirements imposed on research universities.  The issue of burdensome reporting requirements and their effects on research university faculty was discussed at the June 27 subcommittee hearing, “The Role of Research Universities in Securing America’s Future Prosperity: Challenges and Expectations.”  The issue was again discussed at the August 1 subcommittee hearing, “The Relationship between Business and Research Universities: Collaborations Fueling American Innovation and Job Creation.”

The letter to the GAO explains:

“It is evident from these hearings, the report, and additional conversations with the university research community that the current regulatory environment may be limiting the growth of fundamental basic scientific research.  In particular, concerns were raised about three requirements: the effort reporting required under Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-21; sub-recipient monitoring required under OMB Circular A-133; and the paper record maintenance required for contractors under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 4.703.”

The OMB Circular A-21 is a statement of government policy establishing the rules governing the eligibility and circulation of costs in support of sponsored research, development, and training.  OMB Circular A-133 is a Compliance Supplement policy document used in auditing federal grant programs and the respective grant recipients.  FAR 4.703 are regulations relating to reporting requirements.

The questions which Brooks would like the GAO to answer are:

  1. “What federal requirements, not limited to legislative mandates, reporting requirements and regulations, create reporting burdens for research universities?  Are there any ineffective, duplicative, redundant, inappropriately applied, and/or onerous regulations with which research universities currently must comply; and if so, what are they?
  2. With regard to research universities, how do the following requirements balance regulatory burden with accountability for federal funds: OMB circular A-21; OMB circular A-133; and FAR 4.703?  Please be sure to include a review of the approximate time spent or funds expended and the duplication of effort in complying with the requirements as a part of your examination of the level of burden.
  3. What are the potential benefits and disadvantages of modifying requirements, including those that experts and universities identified as most burdensome?” 


The National Academies Report, “Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security,” includes the recommendation “reduce or eliminate regulations that increase administrative costs, impede research productivity, and deflect creative energy without substantially improving the research environment.”   The report was the subject of the June and August subcommittee hearings and has been highlighted in follow-up discussions on Capitol Hill and around Washington. 

At the June 27 hearing, there was bipartisan interest from Members as to what the subcommittee could do to make changes and ease the regulatory burdens.  Jeffery Seeman, Vice President of Research and Chief Research Officer at Texas A&M University emphasized that universities find it increasingly difficult to pay for federal research compliance mandates noting that they are “extraordinarily costly to our universities and they directly take dollars away from supporting research itself.  They take away dollars from working on cures for cancer.  They take away dollars for finding energy solutions.  They create burdens on our faculty.”  Leslie Tolbert, Senior Vice President for Research at the University of Arizona emphasized that regulations are extremely important but “the easier they are to follow, the clearer they are, the less work it will take and the better job [the universities] will do” to show accountability. 

Panelists offered many suggestions as to specific ways to streamline federal regulations and Members requested that the research university community reach out to them.  Brooks requested that the university community provide Congress with more information about what changes to regulations would help alleviate the complications they presented at the hearing. 

At the August 1 hearing, discussions of the regulatory burdens continued.  Jilda Diehl Carton, Vice President for Research and General Manager of Georgia Tech Research Corporation at the Georgia Institute of Technology discussed how research universities take seriously their responsibility to appropriately use tax dollars.  She stated “universities don’t certainly object to regulation and to requirements to report the results of our research or to report how funds are used for research.  What I think the problem is is where we have duplicative regulation or we have multiple reporting to different agencies.”  She continued by offering suggestions to eliminate duplicative reporting requirements, streamline the reporting requirement process, and reduce the number of different formats the professors currently are required to use to report their findings.  The issue that educational and research productivity is diminished as a result of these duplicative regulations seemed to resonate with Subcommittee Members. 

The Obama Administration has issued two Executive Orders (EO) on this topic.  “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review” was issued by the President on January 18, 2011 and “Identifying and Reducing Regulatory Burdens” was issued by the President on May 10, 2012.  The first EO calls for federal agencies to retrospectively analyze existing “significant regulations” which may be “outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome, and to modify, streamline, expand, or repeal them in accordance with what has been learned.”  The second EO sets priorities when implementing retrospective reviews leading to modification of regulations and encourages public participation in the review process. 

Republican and Democratic subcommittee Members believe that efforts to look into these regulations are a worthwhile endeavor and welcome further commentary from the research university community.  An article published in Issues in Science and Technology, which further explains the need to reform the regulation of research universities, was circulated in a few meetings on Capitol Hill.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics