Federal Research Grants and Administrative Burden

Federally funded biomedical researchers are subject to an increasingly complex set of regulations that govern everything from the protection of human and animal subjects to the handling of potentially hazardous materials to conflict of interest. A survey conducted by the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) explores the amount of administrative burden experienced by faculty who receive federal research grants.

The FDP is a cooperative initiative between ten federal agencies (including the NIH, NSF, and NASA) and approximately one hundred institutions that receive federal funds. The FDP was established in 1988, and its purpose is to streamline the administration of federally sponsored research. The faculty administrative burden survey was carried out by the Faculty Standing Committee of the FDP and was led by Robert Decker, Ph.D. Results are summarized below and the report can be read in its entirety on the FDP website.[1]

Responses were received from 6081 PIs or co-PIs from 73 institutions that receive federal research grants, in areas of research including the physical, biological, computer, agricultural, health, and social sciences. A majority of respondents were tenured faculty with a rank of associate or full professor.

The goals of the survey were to determine the amount of time spent on activities that support and enable research associated with federal research projects, and to estimate how much more time would be available for research if these burdens were reduced. Time spent writing and submitting grant applications, service on study sections, service on institutional compliance committees, and attendance of mandatory training was excluded from the survey.

The survey results indicate that of the time that was spent by faculty on federal research project activities, only 58% was devoted to active research. The remaining 42% of the time was taken up by pre- and post-award research administration. No single overriding burden emerged, but the top tasks identified were writing and submitting grant progress reports, hiring personnel, managing project revenue, equipment, and supply purchases, IRB protocol approvals and training, training personnel and students, and personnel evaluations. Most respondents (95%) reported that they would be able to spend more time on research if support was available for research-related administrative tasks.

Based on the findings in the survey, the report suggests several ways in which the level of faculty burden could be reduced. One obvious solution is an increase in the amount of administrative support available to PIs. Another way to alleviate some of the burden is to implement best practices, which may be identified by taking a closer look at institutional practices and the reported levels of administrative burden. Finally, working with federal agencies to harmonize requirements may reduce some of the burden on researchers.

As this is an ongoing topic of concern for federally supported researchers, the APS Public Affairs Committee plans to address this topic at the next Experimental Biology meeting with a session on regulatory burden.

  1. http://sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/fdp/PGA_054590