By Pamela Webb, associate vice president for research
At universities across the nation, excessive regulatory demands are posing a large challenge for researchers. That concern, which has long been expressed by both faculty and staff at the University of Minnesota, is validated by a September 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that found “continuing expansion of the federal regulatory system and its ever-growing requirements are diminishing the effectiveness of the nation’s research investment by directing investigators’ time away from research.”
The national Faculty Workload Survey by the Federal Demonstration Partnership found that faculty spend about 42 percent of their time on administrative activities associated with research, including proposal preparation, award oversight and reporting, and a wide variety of compliance-related responsibilities. While I would be hard-pressed to suggest an ideal timeshare for faculty to spend on such activities — it would certainly depend on the type of research and its risk to the safety of participants and researchers — 42 percent is clearly too high. Researchers I speak with believe spending a third to half of their time on compliance is a real barrier to innovative research.
Legislation to roll back burden in Congress
The higher education community has long raised the issue in Washington, and lawmakers are beginning to listen; two bipartisan bills on research regulation have been introduced in Congress. In the Senate, S. 2742, a bill sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the former president of the University of Tennessee, and Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), would adopt some of the recommendations of the National Academies report, with specific recommendations for the National Institutes of Health and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which would review and recommend improvements to research administration across the federal government.
As the University’s institutional representative to the Council on Government Relations (COGR), I was privileged to contribute language on subrecipient monitoring to legislation being drafted in the House by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL). Both the House and the Senate legislation have been endorsed by the Association of American Universities and COGR because they strike a balance between reducing unnecessary and costly regulatory requirements and appropriate accountability and government oversight.
Uniform Guidance provides mixed results on regulatory burden
As researchers are aware, OMB recently revised the set of core research regulations impacting universities and other key grant recipients by combining eight separate guidance documents into one Uniform Guidance. Goals for the Uniform Guidance included reducing “waste, abuse and burden in the administration of grants and other federal assistance awards,” and its scope represented the most significant change in federal research administration policy in 50 years. Last year, a cross-cutting University committee led by the Sponsored Projects Administration and the Controller’s Office implemented these changes.
On the whole, the Uniform Guidance offered some promising advances around validating salary charges on sponsored projects, clarifying proposal cost-sharing requirements and merit review, allowing for essential programmatic and administrative support costs, improving reimbursement of research facility utilities, and standardizing certain federal proposal and reporting requirements. However, the regulations also significantly increased burdens related to issuance and monitoring of subawards to research collaborators, and will — unless current national lobbying efforts are successful — increase the administrative burden and delays related to purchasing equipment and certain supplies.
Previously, researchers purchasing equipment at the University were only required to obtain competing bids or price quotes from different vendors when the item cost $10,000 or more. Under the Uniform Guidance, however, institutions instead must use a $3,500 purchasing threshold, thereby affecting approximately 7,000 more purchasing transactions per year at the U of M. The federal government has temporarily suspended implementation of this requirement based on strong opposition from universities and many other constituencies. COGR recently showed OMB that the cost of implementing this requirement can be expected to exceed $50 million across research universities, non-profit institutions and hospitals, and that the new threshold is not needed to ensure good stewardship of federal funds. University advocates continue to work with federal officials in hopes of removing or amending this new requirement.
Further opportunities at the federal and university levels
At the federal level, there remain many other opportunities for limiting regulatory demands on researchers’ time that neither compromise our commitment to ethical practices nor diminish our accountability. One area is effort reporting, where researchers are required to document the time they spend on each ongoing sponsored research project. Effort reporting is a reasonable requirement that ensures the government receives researcher time and effort commensurate with the amount of salary for which it pays, but documenting time has historically been inefficient and obtuse.
My colleague David Hagen, director of the Office of Cost Analysis, sits on a national workgroup that is examining improved models for how best to validate the labor and time spent on a project. While the federal government is unlikely to formally endorse any specific model, OMB has encouraged universities to consider alternative approaches that align with the updated requirements. I believe that the process of national experts gathering together to mutually design such alternatives, coupled with their eventual widespread adoption, will produce a significantly improved set of national norms acceptable to researchers, university administrators, and the audit community alike. Improvements in this area would be an enormous benefit for faculty and staff at the U of M, which generates 22,000 effort reports annually.
In addition to their federal recommendations, the National Academies report suggested a number of improvements universities can make internally. OVPR has already adopted this mindset with its risk recalibration efforts. COGR has released a checklist of practical changes that institutions could consider to streamline operations. I look forward to establishing a workgroup to review that list to determine additional opportunities for streamlining.
The value of fewer, more effective regulations
Regulations play an important role in articulating safe and reasonable conduct of research and wise stewardship of public funding, but that doesn’t mean that more is better. Streamlining regulatory processes can actually help build faculty and staff’s commitment to being compliant and ethical by allowing them to internalize the key principles rather than grapple with an excess of minute details.
Moving forward, I am optimistic about the ways that the proposed legislation, if passed, and opportunities for institutional changes can reduce the administrative burden placed on researchers. It will continue to be a high priority of ours to free up time for U of M researchers to focus on what matters most — conducting cutting-edge research and advancing knowledge.
Pamela Webb recently received her profession’s highest honor, the Outstanding Achievement in Research Administration award from the National Council on University Research Administrators, which recognizes her distinguished career and the many contributions she has made to the field of research administration. Webb sits on the Council on Governmental Relations’ board and is part of its Research Compliance & Administration committee.
The House bill, H.R. 5583, was introduced on June 24 by Rep. Lipinski.