Subcommittees Discuss Administrative Burdens Faced by U.S. Researchers

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A June 12 joint hearing of the Oversight and Research and Technology Subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee gave Members an opportunity to examine the administrative workload associated with federally funded research. They were interested in addressing and reviewing concerns raised in a recent National Science Board (NSB) report “Reducing Investigators’ Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research.” The hearing demonstrated bipartisan interest in balancing the need to collect information to avoid inappropriate use of federal funding while also modifying ineffective regulations and streamlining requirements in an effort to increase the amount of time scientists spend on conducting research.

Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) opened the hearing by noting the NSB report’s finding that “researchers spend 42 percent of their application time on meeting administrative requirements. That is a massive drain on researchers’ time and resources, and means they are spending that much less time on conducting active research, which is their primary objective.” He expressed interest in working to define appropriate authorization levels for science agencies to potentially reduce the authorization levels for administrative functions in order to “reduce administrative burdens on institutions.”

Oversight Subcommittee Ranking Member Dan Maffei (D-NY) discussed weighing the benefits of regulations against their costs. He noted that the committee’s recently approved Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act “itself creates new regulatory burdens, either directly or indirectly, on researchers. It also increases administrative overhead at NSF, which will drain funds away from research to support the new array of compliance requirements invented by the Majority.”

Research and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-IN) reflected on his recent visits to research universities in Indiana during which he heard about the administrative burdens on scientists. He noted that the FIRST Act recently passed by the House Science Committee contains a provision which requires the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to “establish a working group responsible for reviewing federal regulations surrounding research and research universities and making recommendations on ways to minimize the regulatory burdens on universities.”

Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology noted “the time spent on administrative tasks – from applying for grants, to submitting progress reports, to complying with the rules for human participant requirements – is time not spent on conducting research. This could mean a delay in research progress and lengthening the time for the next scientific breakthrough.” He acknowledged the importance of administrative requirements that protect human participants but stated that there needs to be “the right balance that meets those goals and allows researchers to focus on what they do best – advancing science.” Lipinski was interested in hearing about progress to streamline administrative tasks and wanted to hear comments about legislation such as the proposed DATA Act and the GRANT Act that would affect administrative burdens for researchers.

Four witnesses testified. Arthur Bienenstock, Chairman of the Task Force on Administrative Burden of the National Science Board discussed Task Force recommendations for proposals. These include that requirements focus on “the scientific and potential social value of the project, deferring ancillary materials not critical to merit review,” “eliminate or modify regulations that are ineffective or inappropriate for scientific projects,” “harmonize and streamline regulations, policies, guidelines, reporting requirements, forms and formatting, electronic systems and training,” and “increase efficiency and effectiveness” within universities.

Susan Sedwick, Chair of the Federal Demonstration Partnership and President of FDP Foundation provided Members with an overview of the Federal Demonstration Partnership association as well as a faculty workload survey which recommended that “reducing the administrative workload associated with federally funded projects is critical for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of research.” She also discussed a pilot program for a payroll certification demonstration.

Gina Lee-Glauser, Vice President for Research in the Office of Research at Syracuse University noted that the constriction in federal research funding is complicating the collective efforts of universities as she discussed the effect that such limited funding has on grant success rates. She supported the approaches used by the National Institutes of Health to address reporting requirements and expressed that the process for documentation and evaluation for animal uses in research could be improved.

Allison Lerner, Inspector General of the National Science Foundation described labor effort reports and proposed changes to effort reporting. She emphasized that the OIG office will “continue to utilize the full range of [their] audit and investigative resources to exercise robust oversight of NSF’s stewardship of federal funds and to safeguard the integrity of the Foundation’s operations.”

Following the opening, Broun was interested to hear comments on reporting requirements. Sedwick described an electronic system used by her foundation to minimize the administrative burden on faculty. Broun asked witnesses to recommend an appropriate percentage of time for administrative tasks. While many of the witnesses did not respond with a specific number Lerner noted the importance of regulations to protect human subjects.

Maffei expressed his concerns about the changes in the merit review process in the FIRST Act. Bienenstock responded by calling for the harmonization of administrative tasks. He cautioned that the merit review section of the Act “would completely de-harmonize NSF from all the other agencies in the treatment of allegations of research misconduct” emphasizing that this section will create problems for the research community and add to the burden of researchers. Maffei stated that researchers constantly have to apply for research funds and wanted witnesses to comment on the effect this has on young researchers. Lee-Glauser agreed that this has a negative effect, particularly on underrepresented minorities.

Bucshon spoke about the disagreement in Congress over the appropriate use of funds for certain areas of research. He was interested to hear what aspects of reporting requirements did not affect the outcome of research. Bienenstock answered that the grant proposal process could initially only include information relevant to the project’s potential to receive funding. He suggested that a second step of the process include the rest of reporting requirements after a project has received funding.

Lipinski asked witnesses to provide guidance to reduce burdens in order to ensure that the needs of the research communities are addressed. Sedwick discussed planning and implementing without receiving uniform guidance from agencies. Bienenstock addressed the need for researchers to get administrative help during the reporting process and questioned how scientists should report training graduate students or conduct preliminary research.

Reporting requirements were addressed in a previous Research Subcommittee hearing, and were the subject of a letter sent to the GAO in 2012 requesting a study on the current regulations and reporting requirements. The FYI on the National Research Council’s report on Research Universities that identified the need for reduced administrative burden can be found here.