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Overregulation is stifling research, science board warns

Regulations to safeguard against wasteful activity are, in fact, promoting it.

Despite efforts at reform, an excessive administrative workload placed on federally funded research continues to consume nearly half the time of principal investigators, says a new report from the National Science Board, the policymaking body of the National Science Foundation.

The burden could be cut significantly were grant proposal requirements limited to those necessary to judge the quality of the science in the peer review process, the report recommends. The report also suggests that ineffective regulations be eliminated or modified, that regulations be harmonized among federal granting agencies, and that universities increase the efficiency of their internal compliance processes.

Although some regulation and oversight of research is needed for accountability and safety, “excessive and ineffective requirements take scientists away from the bench unnecessarily and divert taxpayer dollars from research to superfluous grant administration,” Arthur Bienenstock, chair of the NSB task force that examined the issue, said in a statement.

In response to an NSB survey, thousands of federally funded scientists identified excessive administrative workload in the areas of financial management, grant proposal preparation, reporting, personnel management, and institutional review boards. The NSB report, Reducing Investigators’ Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research, urges such improvements as automated payroll certification, and reporting requirements that focus on outcomes. It also recommends an evaluation of conflict of interest, safety, and security requirements.

The NSB calls for creation of a permanent interagency committee to address its recommendations, to identify opportunities to streamline and harmonize regulations, and to standardize all new requirements that affect investigators and institutions.

“Many of the issues raised have been highlighted in previous surveys and reports for more than a decade. Failure to address these issues has resulted in wasted federal research dollars,” the report said. “At a time of fiscal challenges and with low funding rates at many Federal agencies, it is imperative that these issues are addressed so that researchers can refocus their efforts on scientific discovery and translation.”

President Barack Obama's administration has taken many steps to attempt to reduce the administrative workload, including issuing new guidance to agencies on administrative and audit requirements last year. Obama has issued two executive orders in the past three years aimed at reducing the burden. The Federal Demonstration Partnership, a cooperative initiative among 10 agencies and 119 institutions receiving research grants, has been attempting to address the issues for several decades.

But despite those efforts, a 2012 survey by the Partnership found that administrative requirements attached to federal research grants required 42% of principal investigators’ time on average, unchanged from 10 years earlier.

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