On 12 June 2014, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a joint hearing on “Reducing the Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research.” The hearing examined ways to reduce the administrative paperwork required for research funded by federal grants.
Oversight Subcommittee Chair Paul Broun (R-GA) opened the hearing by citing a survey result that researchers spend 42 percent of their time meeting administrative requirements. Calling that figure “an extraordinarily high number,” Broun expressed interest in finding ways to “reduce the administrative workload for federally funded research without compromising the federal responsibility to ensure tax money is spent in the manner intended.” Oversight Subcommittee Ranking Member Dan Maffei (D-NY) agreed with Broun on the need to limit the paperwork burden, but stressed the negative effects of budget cuts causing scientists to increase the “number of times you apply for the same grant” just to get funding.
Witnesses testifying before the panel were Dr. Arthur Bienenstock, Chairman of the Task Force on Administrative Burden at the National Science Board; Dr. Susan Wyatt Sedwick, Chair of the Federal Demonstration Partnership and Director of the Office of Sponsored Projects at the University of Texas at Austin; Dr. Gina Lee-Glauser, Vice President for Research at Syracuse University Office of Research; and Allison Lerner, Inspector General at the National Science Foundation (NSF).
In her opening statement, Lerner called for “a dialogue between the grantee and the Inspector General (IG) communities” to discuss the expectations and documentation needs of both sides. She also highlighted effort reports as an area that was often singled out for criticism. While admitting that the current effort reporting system is not perfect, Lerner cited the fact that 36% of research funding goes to salaries as a reason why the time documentation should be improved, but not scrapped.
Bienenstock in particular supported Lerner’s suggestion of greater dialogue between universities and auditors, stating that “universities do fear audits.” Bienenstock agreed that the reporting regulations do “serve a real function,” but that current proposal submissions to NSF contain a lot of information that is “not critical.” Picking up on this point, Lee-Glauser argued that a major contributor to the problem has been NSF funding levels. She cited researchers “submitting a greater number of proposals just to get one funded” when many of the rejected proposals were no worse than those accepted. Bienenstock and Lee-Glauser argued for less “non-critical” reporting such as post-doc training plans to be filed initially, instead waiting to file that work after a grant had been approved.
Sedwick largely focused on the extra burden being picked up by administrative offices, in order to allow the scientists to spend as much time as possible focusing on research. She argued that universities had insufficient resources to keep up with requirements because of a 26 percent cap on administrative costs for grant related research that “has not kept pace” with the increased time needed to comply with regulations.
Throughout the hearing, the committee showed bipartisan support for reducing time spent on administrative work, and expressed the hope that something could be accomplished in the coming reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act.
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