Research

Consistent Research Regulations Could Ease the Burden on Scientists, Panel Says

September 22, 2015

Federal regulation "steals from the nation’s investment in research and has become self-defeating," a National Academies panel told Congress on Tuesday. But the burden could be eased through more-uniform federal rules and the creation of a new independent oversight board, the panel said.

The 18-member panel, formed by the National Academy of Sciences in response to a congressional request, produced a 144-page report describing unrelenting growth in both university research and government attempts to quantify and police it. In doing so, the report reiterated previous analyses by the National Science Foundation, the Association of American Universities and the Council on Governmental Relations, and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

But at a time when the Republican-led legislature appears inclined to provide regulatory relief, the National Academies panel may have a chance to make a mark where the others have not.

"This report has specific steps Congress and the administration can take to fix this problem," Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in a brief written response to the report, "and we intend to include many of the recommendations in legislation we will introduce this year to speed innovation in health care."

The panel — led by Larry R. Faulkner, president emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin — emphasized harmonization and streamlining, as previous reports have done. It suggested that the White House Office of Management and Budget lead a concerted effort by federal agencies to agree on a common and consistent set of regulatory rules.

Mr. Faulkner’s panel also called on universities to do a better job of policing themselves if they want the government to ease off. It suggested the creation of a "Research Policy Board," modeled on the Financial Accounting Standards Board of the Securities and Exchange Commission, that would be financed by the universities while operating with the authority of the government.

‘The Key Word’

Regulatory compliance may be costly and time-consuming, but the underlying needs still must be met, the panel said. "Some academic research institutions have failed to respond appropriately to investigators’ transgressions or failed to use effectively the range of tools available to create an environment that strongly discourages, at both the institutional and individual level, behaviors in conflict with the standards and norms of the scientific community," it said.

The panel also suggested a revised role for inspectors general, the independent-oversight offices inside many federal departments and agencies. The responsibilities of the inspectors general "should be rebalanced so that appropriate consideration is given both to uncovering waste, fraud, and abuse and to advising on economy, efficiency, and effectiveness," the panel said.

"The relationship between inspectors general and research institutions should be based on a shared commitment to advancing the nation’s interest through a dynamic and productive research enterprise," it said.

The Association of American Universities, in a statement attributed to its president, Hunter R. Rawlings III, said that it had repeatedly called for regulatory relief and that adoption of the Faulkner panel’s recommendations "would represent a good start."

But one longtime federal inspector general, suggested by the Association of Inspectors General to respond to the panel’s recommendations, said he saw danger behind the proposed shift in oversight priorities.

The suggested rebalancing strikes at a "very fundamental issue with regard to the independence and objective approach" expected of inspectors general, said Kenneth M. Donohue, who served as inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 2001 to 2010, at a time of challenges that included the nation’s subprime-mortgage crisis.

Inspectors general can offer helpful advice to federal agencies and their outside partners, but the law establishing inspectors general made clear that was not their main purpose, said Mr. Donohue, now a senior adviser at the CohnReznick Advisory Group. "It doesn’t say anything about cooperation, it doesn’t say anything about collegiality with the programs — it says oversight and independence, and that’s the key, that’s the key word in this discussion."

Congress should be especially sensitive to that fact at a time when many lawmakers are challenging Hillary Clinton over her use of private emails during her time as secretary of state, Mr. Donohue said. "Can you imagine," he said, "if the inspector general at the State Department was seen as working collegially with the State Department at this moment in time?"

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at paul.basken@chronicle.com.