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Research universities say they are getting buried by costly regulatory paperwork.

Christian Schnettelker/


This story is the eighth in ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series. Through Election Day on 4 November, we will periodically examine research issues that will face U.S. lawmakers when they return to Washington, D.C., for a lame-duck session and when a new Congress convenes in January. Click here to see all the stories published so far; click here for a list of published and planned stories.

Today, a look at the effort by universities to ease what they say is an increasingly heavy, and costly, federal regulatory burden on academic research.

Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech) in Houghton doesn’t have a medical school. But over the past few years its administrators have been conducting surgery of sorts—participating in a pilot program aimed at cutting regulatory red tape that officials say is stifling research.

The bureaucratic experiment has slashed by 90% the number of forms used to track key spending, dramatically reduced the amount of time researchers spend doing the paperwork, and nearly eliminated tardy filings, they say. But none of the organs vital to maintaining accountability and transparency appear to have been harmed, they add. 

The experiment is part of a larger national effort by U.S. universities to revamp what they argue are costly and wasteful regulations. The rules, whether to protect human patients and research animals or prevent financial conflicts of interest, are often well-intentioned, academic officials say. And sometimes they are a reaction to an egregious breach. But “[t]oo often federal requirements are ill-conceived, ineffective, and/or duplicative,” a coalition of major U.S. research universities declared earlier this year. “[T]he time researchers must devote to compliance … unnecessarily reduces the time they can devote to discovery and innovation,” they warned.

Universities have complained for decades of excessive red tape. But they have made relatively little headway in recent years in catalyzing changes. The next 2 years could be different, however. Congress has already launched several studies of possible solutions, and there seems to be bipartisan interest to doing something. Representative Larry Bucshon (R–IN), who chairs the research panel on the science committee for the U.S. House of Representatives, has said his goal is to “alleviate some of the burden placed on our research universities so they can get back to the main goal of conducting basic science research.”

Such rhetoric is creating “cautious optimism that we’ll see some kind of action,” says Tobin Smith of the Association of American Universities (AAU), which represents 62 research-intensive universities. “Our concerns seem to be getting heard.”

But Smith and other university advocates aren’t counting any chickens. It’s easy to vilify regulation in the abstract, they note, but often hard to figure out the line between a burdensome rule and one that deters waste and abuse. “The phrase ‘The Devil is in the details’ doesn’t even begin to describe how complicated this whole exercise can get,” says a staffer on one of the several House committees looking at the matter.

Still, there appears to be growing resolve to look into those details. Among the omens:

  • In July, the House approved bipartisan legislation, (H.R. 5056), introduced by Bucshon, requiring the White House’s science policy and budget offices to recommend ways to harmonize and streamline academic research regulations and eliminate duplicative rules and reporting requirements. Similar language is included in a draft Senate bill that would reauthorize the 2010 COMPETES Act, a major research policy law that expired last year. Both bills drew inspiration from a report, Reducing Investigators’ Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research, issued in March by the National Science Board (the National Science Foundation’s independent governing body). Neither bill is expected to become law this year, but both are likely to help shape legislative efforts in the next Congress.

  • The National Academies’ National Research Council (NRC) is about to launch a long-delayed study on the impact of federal regulations and reporting requirements on colleges and universities. Advocates hope it will deliver preliminary recommendations by early 2016. In the same 2014 spending bill that allocated $1 million for the NRC study, Congress ordered the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish a working group that will analyze and recommend ways to reduce the administrative burden on its grantees. University lobbyists fought successfully for a seat at the table.

  • The Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education, created by a bipartisan group of senators, is finishing up a report on streamlining regulations affecting higher education. The task force was formed in November 2013 by four members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions: Lamar Alexander (R–TN), Barbara Mikulski (D–MD), Michael Bennet (D–CO), and Richard Burr (R–NC). The Task Force is co-chaired by Nicholas Zeppos, chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland System.

  • At the request of Representative Mo Brooks (R–AL), the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is reviewing three sets of regulations that the academic community has identified as potentially problematic. They apply to so-called effort reporting requirements, audit rules, and requirements that grantees keep original paper copies of receipts (and not electronic copies). Brooks is the former chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s research and education subcommittee. It’s not clear when the report might surface.

University officials welcome the new focus on at least part of thier long list of concerns. One example: the effort reporting requirement, which requires individuals involved in a grant to quantify how much time they spend on different activities (as a percent). The data are generally used to calculate how much of a researcher’s salary should be charged to a specific grant.

Universities complain that the system is outmoded and inefficient. Not only is “effort” often hard to define, they say, but current practices require a blizzard of quarterly reports that must get multiple signatures. Running that gauntlet often leads to missed deadlines.

Officials would also like to see the government follow a process that aligns more closely with their accounting systems. One alternative would be a system based on payroll records. Rather than requiring individuals to make quarterly reports, the new system would focus on annual reports from projects and would be based on budget allocations rather than “effort.”

Three years ago, the Federal Demonstration Partnership—an alliance of nine federal agencies and more than 120 research institutions that works to minimize paperwork and administrative costs—took up the idea. The result was the experiment launched at Michigan Tech and three other campuses: George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and the Irvine and Riverside campuses of the University of California (UC).

Early results are promising, the campuses report. At one of the UC campuses, for example, officials were able to replace some 14,000 effort reports with just 2100 relatively easy-to-complete payroll certifications. And the paperwork is almost never late, they reported earlier this year. But there are still some bugs to work out, and federal officials at several agencies will have to sign off on the idea before it can spread beyond the pilot stage.

Other areas ripe for reform, university groups say, include a common financial reporting scheme for all agencies and an end to requiring universities to rereview records of collaborators that have already been inspected by a federal agency. They’d also like to see some granting agencies embrace such “just in time” practices, such as not requiring applicants to spell out complex data storage or sharing plans before they are being seriously considered for a grant. Academics are also unhappy about proposed rules that would require them to submit multiple versions of biographies and publication lists to granting agencies. And many biomedical research institutions are howling about relatively recent rules that require greater disclosures by researchers about potential conflicts of interest. The rules have boosted paperwork, they say, but do little to prevent researchers from hiding potential conflicts.

Just how much of that agenda gets put into play won’t be clear for some time. But university groups argue that a squeeze on overall spending makes regulatory surgery even more urgent than before.

ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series will look at a range of issues that will be on policymakers’ agenda once the voters have spoken on 4 November. Look for stories on:

*Correction, 3 November, 6:25 p.m.: The release date of the National Science Board's report has been corrected.