Time and Money Are Being Wasted in the Lab

Douglas Paulin for The Chronicle

December 03, 2012

Advances across virtually all fields of science show promise for solving an array of puzzles about the nature of the world—from disease emergence and climate-change impact to the origins of our universe. Unfortunately, the pace of scientific progress is being slowed by excessive, redundant, and ineffective requirements imposed both by government agencies and by the universities where research is being conducted.

A survey released in 2007 by the Federal Demonstration Partnership, an association of federal agencies, research universities, and research-policy groups, estimated that 42 percent of American researchers' time is spent on administrative tasks, compared with 18 percent two decades earlier. A forthcoming update is expected to show that things have not improved, in spite of the outcry that accompanied the original study.

Furthermore, the survey looked only at the administrative hours logged by the principal researchers; it did not take into account the tasks performed by laboratory staff and trainees or by the army of administrators hired to handle increasingly complex requirements of reporting and assurance. For example, in 2001, just 4 percent of the University of Pennsylvania's research budget went toward regulation-compliance efforts. Today such activities account for more than 20 percent of the budget.

The Council on Governmental Relations, comprising research universities, lists 50 new or revised federal research-grant regulations that have been put into place since 1991—the same year the government capped the amount of money that could be billed to administrative costs. The result? Penn, like other major research universities, foots the bill for the added administrative burden.

No one recommends doing away with regulations that ensure accountability to funding agencies and the public, or that genuinely protect all of us from dangers that can accompany some scientific research. But many sets of rules are redundant and wasteful, since researchers are often required to complete numerous versions of forms that cover the same topics for different agencies.

All that red tape is also expensive: The demonstration-project survey showed that researchers' time spent on administrative tasks was equivalent to $97-million in salary support. In a report by the National Research Council ("Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to our Nation's Prosperity and Security"), one public university said its administrative costs tied to federal grants had jumped from $3.5-million in 2005 to nearly $6-million in 2010. At another institution, the costs of compliance and quality assurance increased from about $3-million in 2000 to $12.5-million in 2010.

At a time of severely constrained budgets, such wastefulness is unacceptable, particularly since some solutions seem obvious. For example, rules intended to ensure the safety of human subjects could actually be strengthened if the lead institution in a study took responsibility for subjecting it to scrutiny by a single institutional review board. As it is, separate reviews are required at each of multiple participating sites.

In addition, existing data sets as well as the protocols for continuing large-scale trials should not require repeated annual reviews by a review board if safety goals can be supported by a less-frequent assessment schedule. Federal agencies should also work to coordinate privacy requirements for health information with the overlapping regulations of the federal Office of Human Research Protections.

Oversight of dual-use biological research, while important, is also rife with redundancies. Laboratories with grants from multiple agencies must comply with an array of time-consuming site visits, and they must duplicate the same information again and again. An authoritative 2010 report concluded that financial and administrative burdens on research institutions could be eased by "harmonizing select agent policies across all relevant agencies, and by building a common regulatory structure for safety and security of laboratory hazards."

Those fields are not the only concerns. Scientific progress is crucial to economic well-being as well as to our quality of life. More than half of our economic growth since World War II has resulted from scientific and technological innovation. Now, with federal research spending down and industry forgoing basic research for the greater likelihood of profit, we need to make taxpayer investments in the research enterprise go as far as possible toward supporting the scientific discoveries at the heart of innovation and economic growth.

The Obama administration tackled the issue of burdensome research-grant administration in executive orders issued in 2011 and 2012, and meetings of the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education brought forth telling testimony and bipartisan interest in a streamlined system. Jeffrey R. Seemann, who was then vice president for research and chief research officer at Texas A&M University, told the subcommittee that federal research compliance mandates "take dollars away from supporting research itself. They take away dollars from working on cures for cancer. They take away dollars for finding energy solutions."

The chairman of the subcommittee, Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), asked the Government Accountability Office to review regulations affecting research universities that receive federal funds. In his request, he cited the National Research Council's report on research universities, noting that one of the report's 10 recommendations was to "reduce or eliminate regulations that increase administrative costs, impede research productivity, and deflect creative energy without substantially improving the research environment." In response to such concerns, and following the president's executive orders, the Office of Management and Budget is working on a coordinated set of instructions regarding federal grants to universities and nonprofit institutions.

Members of the subcommittee have asked for input from the public, and the OMB will open a 60-day comment period as soon as a draft proposal is finished, which could be early next year. This offers an opportunity for the research community and anyone who recognizes the value of scientific progress to help ensure that American science thrives in an accountable, efficient, and effective way. A streamlined process would improve both the productivity and the morale of the researchers responsible for the innovations that improve our world.

Alan I. Leshner is chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science. Steven J. Fluharty is senior vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania.