New U.S. board proposed to tackle regulatory burden on research universities

Christian Schnettelker (www.manoftaste.de) (CC BY 2.0)

New U.S. board proposed to tackle regulatory burden on research universities

The best way to ease the regulatory burden on U.S. academic researchers is to create another layer of bureaucracy. That surprising conclusion is the top recommendation in a report out today by a National Academies committee that Congress asked to examine the current regulatory jungle confronting universities that receive federal research dollars.

The committee, chaired by former University of Texas President Larry Faulkner, believes that the government’s “ever-growing requirements are diminishing the effectiveness of the nation’s research investment.” It asks Congress to set up a quasi-governmental entity, which it calls the Research Policy Board (RPB), as a mechanism to come up with better ways of overseeing the U.S. research enterprise. Managed by a new associate director within the White House science office, the board would work closely with the Office of Management and Budget, which must vet all proposed regulations from federal agencies. But the board’s funding would come from research institutions, giving it a degree of independence not enjoyed by a government agency.

“The committee thinks that an effective forum would in the end save more money than it would cost,” Faulkner says. But another committee member, Barbara Bierer of Harvard Medical School was less sanguine. “The cost [of the new board] would have to be balanced by the savings achieved by the changes we are trying to achieve, and that is difficult to calculate.”

The proposed board would be a forum for the research community and government officials to hash out new regulations, harmonize existing regulations across agencies, review the impact of current rules, and anticipate what proposed rules might mean for academic institutions. “I think anticipatory work is the hardest thing to finance in a public setting,” Faulkner says. “But science keeps changing, and it’s essential to figure out how the regulatory system can keep up with those changes without becoming a burden to the innovation process.”

Faulkner says the board is modeled after a body set up more than 40 years ago by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission to create and monitor accounting standards for the financial industry. “I’ve been fascinated by the way the financial community has created this officially sanctioned but privately staffed body to work on things,” says Faulkner, who is acquainted with the Financial Accounting Standards Board because of his service on corporate boards. “You have the government oversight and connections you need, but because it’s privately financed you can also have whatever staff you need.”

Faulkner says the committee feels the RPB could make “the most lasting contribution” toward improving the regulatory environment for universities. But its report makes several other recommendations, all aimed at simplifying the interaction between the academic community and some two dozen federal agencies that support research. They include having the government adopt a “uniform format” for submitting research proposals and tracking the progress of awarded grants, embrace a single conflict-of-interest policy for scientists receiving federal funds, and take steps toward harmonizing the myriad rules governing the use of animals and human subjects in research. Universities also need to do a better job of policing themselves, says Faulkner, including punishing those who cross the line.

The committee, formed last fall, originally planned to work on its report until well into 2016. But this spring Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) asked it to move more quickly, and in July he gave the committee specific marching orders on how to tailor its recommendations so that his staff could turn them into legislative proposals.

The committee’s preliminary report, entitled Part 1: A New Regulatory Framework for the 21st Century, seems to have met the senator’s demands. “This report has specific steps Congress and the administration can take to fix this problem,” Alexander said in a statement today, “and we intend to include many of the recommendations in legislation we will introduce this year to speed innovation in health care. We will also work with the administration on the steps it can take without any need for legislation.”

Faulkner said the second part of the committee’s report will deal with topics not addressed in part 1, including rules governing the export of sensitive and dual-use technologies, as well as ways of maintaining adequate privacy protections when universities submit information to the federal government. That portion will be delivered in early 2016, he said. The committee has no plans to revisit any of the issues in part 1, he added.

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