Out, out red tape: Congress weighs bills to reduce regulatory burden on academic science

U.S. universities complain about the high cost of complying with rules to ensure that federal research dollars are being spent properly. A tsunami testing facility at Oregon State University, Corvallis, is partly funded with federal funds.

Oregon State University (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Out, out red tape: Congress weighs bills to reduce regulatory burden on academic science

The federal government and U.S. universities are notorious for their stifling bureaucracies. So it’s no great surprise that the government’s oversight of campus-based research is larded with requirements that are inefficient, redundant, and simply make no sense.

Periodic attempts to streamline the process haven’t been very successful. But this year, influential lawmakers from both parties are hoping to make a significant dent in the problem by tying the issue to broader pieces of legislation moving through Congress. One of those bills should advance this week, in fact, as a Senate panel is expected on Wednesday to approve a measure that includes substantial language aimed at giving researchers some regulatory relief.

The bill—which is officially known as the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S. 3084)—would promote research, innovation, and science education at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Commerce, and across federal agencies. But it offers a convenient legislative vehicle to address regulatory reform. Other bills that address the topic focus on shortening the time from discovery to treatment in the U.S. health care system, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or on tweaking specific federal regulations.

Generally, just a small portion of each bill deals with the oversight of academic research. But the broader legislation gives the cause much more visibility—and a greater chance of success—than it might otherwise enjoy as a stand-alone issue.

That’s important when you’re trying to change rules governing the partnership that the federal government and universities forged during World War II. The corpus of regulations has increased manifold over the decades, to the point where many expert panels have warned the partnership itself is at risk.

The most recent such report, from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, recommends creating an independent, quasi-governmental body that would have the authority to tackle the regulatory problem head-on. Such a Research Policy Board, the report argues, would be able to head off problems before they arise as well as remove current logjams and adjudicate conflicts.

In the Senate, Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), who chairs the Senate health and education panel, has been working on health care legislation that collectively is called the 21st Century Cures Act. He asked the Academies's committee to deliver a preliminary copy of its report last fall so that its recommendations might inform his work. And he liked the idea of a research policy board so much that he inserted it into legislation (S. 2742) that his committee approved by voice vote this spring.

Alexander’s board would have outside members, and it would have the ability to form panels to carry out studies. But unlike the academy’s recommendation it would serve an advisory role with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Given the committee’s jurisdiction, however, the bill would only affect researchers funded by NIH and other agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the House of Representatives, last Friday Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL) introduced a stand-alone bill (H.R. 5583) that would also create a Research Policy Board. It would be housed within OMB, specifically, within its rulemaking arm called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Although the federal membership on Lipinski’s board would be limited to representatives from NIH, NSF, and the Department of Defense, the board would be chaired by the president’s science adviser and an associate OIRA administrator for academic regulatory affairs, a position created to oversee the health of the federal-academic research partnership.

Lipinski’s bill has a Republican co-sponsor, Representative Randy Hultgren (IL). But it faces an uphill struggle to get out of the House science committee, much less get a vote on the House floor.

The House has already passed another bill that touches on regulatory relief for researchers. In May 2015, on a voice vote, lawmakers approved a bipartisan bill (H.R. 1119) from the science committee that would simply create a working group within the interagency National Science and Technology Council within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to review existing federal policies. The two-page bill is one of several pieces of legislation that the science committee’s chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), has shepherded through the House as components of a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, an expired 2013 law governing policies at NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and OSTP. As such, it serves more as a marker of interest in the topic than as a detailed road map for legislators to follow.

Senate bill takes firm stance

Tomorrow, the Senate commerce and science committee is scheduled to take up its version of a COMPETES reauthorization, and the bipartisan legislation (S. 3084) contains a section devoted to regulatory relief. In fact, the bill offers arguably the most compelling argument for change. “It is the sense of Congress that administrative burdens faced by researchers may be reducing the return on investment of federally funded research and development.”

To prove its point, the bill cites surveys in which federally funded scientists say that 42% of the time they devote to a grant is spent on administrative duties, including writing up their results, submitting grant applications, and supervising students and postdocs in their lab. (The statistic is often erroneously reported as administrative duties taking up 42% of all their working hours.)

The bill would create a working group chaired jointly by OMB and OSTP that would consult regularly with the academic research community and have the power to carry out studies and recommend policy changes. There’s no policy board, but the bill’s co-sponsors, Senators Cory Gardner (R–CO) and Gary Peters (D–MI) borrowed liberally from the Academies report’s suggestion to conduct several pilot projects aimed at cutting down on the amount of time federally funded researchers spend on administrative tasks.

Many of the pilots are in response to pleas from researchers to simplify the grant application process, which they see as a waste of time because low success rates have made their odds so poor. So the bill calls for greater reliance on preproposals, withholding the nonresearch components of a grant proposal until reviewers have given it a thumbs up, and creating a centralized database with the biosketches of applicants so that information doesn’t have to be recreated for every agency.

Larry Faulkner, the former president of the University of Texas, Austin, who chaired the Academies panel, says he’s pleased that so many legislators have found the report useful. And although he stands behind its call for an independent board, he refuses to get caught in the middle of a congressional debate over how best to attain the goal of easing the regulatory burden on academics.

“The committee deliberated extensively to reach its recommendations concerning the Research Policy Board, and it conveyed in Part 1 of its report the structural arrangements that the committee deems best suited to an improved regulatory environment,” says Faulkner, a chemist by training. “At the same time, the committee anticipated in its report that the details of implementation would properly be subject to additional deliberation in the public and legislative processes required to realize a new forum. The committee fully respects the workings of Congress in this process.”

It’s not certain which, if any, of the proposals might eventually become law. But it is clear that, after years of labor with little to show, research lobbyists have convinced federal lawmakers it is time to take some bold steps to deal with the problem.