Report: Too Much Regulation Is Hurting Scientists

May 2, 2014

Faculty members in the sciences spend too long on burdensome administrative work, at the expense of their other, more meaningful duties, argues a report out today from the National Science Board. The report, called "Reducing Investigators’ Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research," is based on the work of the board's Task Force on Administrative Burdens, which asked professors to identify through roundtable discussions and requests for information which federal and internal university procedures and requirements were the biggest drains on their time. Financial management, the grant proposal process, progress reports, institutional review boards, and layers of oversight related to working with animals all were common responses.

The paper acknowledges that some oversight is necessary, but says that regulations -- once set -- are not easily changed or lifted, and that "[principal investigators] at many institutions suggested that a culture of overregulation has emerged around federal research, which further increases their administrative workload." The paper argues that such problems have been cited for years -- including two Federal Demonstration Partnership surveys that found principal investigators spend 42 percent of their time on administrative tasks -- but that failure to address them has resulted in "wasted" federal research dollars. “Escalating compliance requirements and inconsistent audit practices directly impact scientists and the time they have to perform research and train students and staff,” said Kelvin Droegemeier, board vice chairman and a member of the Task Force. 

The report offers numerous suggestions for decreasing the administrative burdens of research, such as not requiring as much information in initial proposal merit reviews, and instead requiring more details only once the project is being considered for funding. Progress reports also could be "streamlined" to focus only on performance outcomes, it says. Federal agencies also should work together to streamline grant management processes and paperwork, for example. The task force also recommends that universities review their IRB processes and staff organization "with the goal of achieving rapid approval of high-quality protocols that protect research subjects."

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