Report Urges Federal Agencies to Ease Burden of Lab Inspections

March 04, 2013

Federal auditors on Monday pressed government agencies to ease the regulatory burden on research laboratories by consolidating inspections aimed at ensuring the safe handling of dangerous toxins and pathogens.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, in a report, said federal agencies spent about $2.1-million inspecting hundreds of research facilities in 2010 and 2011. About 15 percent of the facilities were subject to "inspection overlap," meaning multiple federal agencies conducted inspections during the two-year period, the GAO said.

The inspections, covering labs working with controlled agents such as anthrax, are important to ensure public safety, the GAO said in the report, sent to Congress on January 31 and released publicly on Monday.

But, the GAO said, "there is no value added when federal agencies are expending resources to conduct the same work and, in some cases, re-inspecting before entities have had time to respond to findings from a previous inspection."

While figures in the report suggest the amount of money wasted by the government in duplicative inspections, its authors said they could not make any estimate of the additional costs such visits imposed on laboratories. Altogether about 374 organizations in the federal, academic, and private sectors operate about 1,900 labs working with toxins that are subject to federal inspection, the report said.

The problem has long been a focus of attention for universities and their researchers, said Carrie D. Wolinetz, associate vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities, which represents about 60 top research institutions.

The issue of costly, duplicative inspections was "raised repeatedly" over the past couple of years in meetings of the Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel, Ms. Wolinetz said. That panel was formed by the White House in July 2010 to improve procedures for ensuring the security of dangerous biological agents and toxins.

The GAO report said that representatives of federal agencies described themselves as aware of the problem and already taking steps to resolve it. Such steps include coordinating visits among various agencies and improving the consistency of reporting standards, it said.

The agencies are "generally correct" about their efforts, Ms. Wolinetz said. "They do seem to be making an effort to try to better coordinate."

At their last joint meeting with the FBI, in September 2012, some university representatives were "still complaining about dealing with overlapping inspections," she said. "But it is still early, so hopefully we'll see some signs of improvement."