Report Shines Light on Regulatory Burdens on University Research

| Sep 28, 2015 | Opinion

The U.S. university system has long been the envy of the world. The cutting edge basic research that takes place at these universities is a significant part of the basis for this reputation. To ensure that regulation does not unduly hamper this enterprise, last year Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to examine the issue of regulation of research at universities.

ThinkstockPhotos-166539104The charge to the NAS included identifying unduly burdensome regulations on research universities and developing “a framework and supporting principles for the Federal regulation of research universities in the 21st Century.” The NAS convened a committee (of which I was a member) in early 2014 to undertake this task, and at the request of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) the committee last week issued an interim report to inform current discussions on higher education legislation.

The committee met five times and talked with an array of witnesses. We spoke with representatives of many of the agencies that fund and regulate university research, with current and former Office of Management and Budget and Office of Science and Technology Policy officials, and with members of the research university community itself. The message that we heard came through loud and clear. As recipients of government funding, research universities have a responsibility to ensure that those funds are spent carefully and to stand watch against the misuse of taxpayer dollars. It was also clear that regulation of research has become excessively burdensome, that researchers spend inordinate amounts of time on compliance, and that this cuts into the time they spend on the research for which they are being funded.

The NAS committee report emphasizes the historical partnership between government and research universities. It acknowledges that government support has been necessary for the discoveries that have kept the United States at the forefront of innovation and made our research system preeminent. The partnership has been stressed, however, by the cumulative impact of regulations. A significant number of these regulations, albeit well intended, are often both duplicative and poorly targeted to achieve their aims.

The report details a series of recommendations intended to recalibrate the regulation of research universities. The recommendations fall in two broad categories. First, we made recommendations about existing regulations and practices by agency inspectors general that we believe need reform. Second, we suggest modifications to the system for creating new regulations of university research to ensure that moving forward, decisions about new requirements are made in the spirit of the longstanding partnership between government and research institutions.

The recommendations for modifications of current regulations pertain to three areas of research funding. Into the first of these fall requirements for the acquisition and use of federal grants. The process of applying for a federal grant has become a “highly inefficient process where investigators submit an enormous amount of information as part of a proposal that has a very small chance of success.” In addition, requirements for progress reports on funded research, and the monitoring of sub-recipients, have become extremely burdensome. Our recommendations aim to lighten these burdens while still ensuring that the funding agencies can both make informed decisions about grant recipients and monitor grantees after an award is made.

The second area that we focus on is regulation of the conduct of research. We recognize that avoiding financial conflicts of interest, and protecting human and animal subjects, are of critical importance. However, too often in recent years regulations have been promulgated that impose burdens on the entire regulated community in response to isolated instances of wrongdoing. We make specific recommendations for streamlining these regulations, while also recommending that universities exercise careful oversight to ensure that conflicts of interest and mistreatment of human or animal subjects do not occur.

Finally, we issue a series of recommendations about the financial management of grants. These recommendations focus on requirements for financial reporting, procurement by grant recipients, and the required accounting of personnel expenses. They also call attention to the audit climate and the role of inspectors general, as we found that often there are interpretations of regulations that vary between inspectors general and the agencies with which they work.

Our recommendations to modify the institutional setting in which decisions about regulating research takes place include the creation of a Research Policy Board (RPB), a “self-funded, government-linked entity.” The RPB would consist of representatives of the research university community. We also recommend the creation of a new position within Office of Science and Technology Policy, which along with the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, would serve as a government contact point for the RPB. Our hope is that this new organization would facilitate better communication to the government of challenges faced by researchers and the provision of advice on new regulatory initiatives.

The recommendations in this report are intended to ensure that the research enterprise in the U.S. university system continues to be a source of national pride and economic growth, while taxpayer dollars are used in a responsible and ethical manner.

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