by Brian Herman, Published on September 12, 2014
Scientists have a trust problem. They are viewed askance by lawmakers and workaday Americans, according to recent polls.
This diminishing trust has led to an even bigger problem. Over time it has resulted in increased regulations that stymie creativity and progress, lower productivity, and add significant costs and hurdles to the conduct of science. Vast regulatory requirements have burgeoned around the quest for knowledge to the point that the paperwork and administrative costs are so great they compete very closely for primacy with the science.
The National Science Foundation’s National Science Board examined the predicament. What it found should be a wakeup call for lawmakers and regulators alike, all of whom are instrumental in the funding and oversight of federally sponsored research.
“The past two decades have witnessed increasing recognition that the administrative workload placed on federally funded researchers at U.S. institutions is interfering with the conduct of science in a form and to an extent substantially out of proportion to the well-justified need to ensure accountability, transparency and safety,” the NSB concluded in a March report.
The federal panel reiterated an oft-cited statistical shocker that scientists spend “42 percent of their time on associated administrative tasks,” this despite several reform efforts to lower the bureaucratic burden.
The Council on Governmental Relations keeps track of the regulatory growth in federal research. Its most recent assessment documents four full pages (single-spaced) of federal regulatory changes since 1991.
The breadth of regulations on research costs dearly. A 2012 National Research Council report found that “the problem of excessive regulatory burdens…puts a drag on the efficiency of all university research,” potentially costing “billions of dollars over the next decade.”
When federal research funds are tight, as is the current situation, ensuring accountability among the scientific community moves to the front burner, because officials want to make doubly sure that precious resources are used wisely. They are trying to do the right thing, but the law of unintended consequences hovers like a specter. Adding more regulations when federally funded science already is saturated with them means that a larger percentage of smaller federal budgets is devoted to non-productive activities. Thus, the shortage of funds for actual science becomes even greater.
The situation is unacceptable, for taxpayers and scientists alike. Scientific breakthroughs for some of the world’s most pressing problems will be harder to research and develop if such a huge chunk of the budget goes to paperwork.
Is help on the way? That’s unclear. The federal government is taking action, though whether it will diminish the regulatory burden is still up in the air because the measures have yet to ripple through the research establishment.
For example, Congress and the Obama administration continue to review regulations and reporting requirements on research universities. Congress has held hearings on the issue and has asked the Government Accountability Office to review regulations and reporting requirements on research universities. The Obama administration has issued executive orders to reduce the regulatory burden, while the White House Office of Management and Budget recently made reforms to the oversight of federal research grants.
Government has a key role to play in federally sponsored research by ensuring accountability, transparency and safety. No one is suggesting eliminating all government oversight. But let’s agree that it’s well past the time for a radical rebalancing.