As all researchers know, getting and using federal research grants is difficult. So difficult, in fact, that researchers must spend 42% of their research time, on average, on paperwork and other administrative burdens associated with their funding. This is not only a waste of researchers’ time, it is also a waste of money and resources.
In 2016, IEEE-USA asked Congress if we could find a better way. In December, Congress agreed.
Tucked into the 21st Century Cures Act and the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act were provisions that should change how the government monitors federally-funded research. When the bills became law in late December, so did these useful reforms.
The most important of these provisions establishes a new inter-departmental Research Policy Board, consisting of representatives from the major research agencies (Department of Energy, NSF, NIST, etc.). The Board has been tasked with finding ways to streamline and standardize research oversight across government departments. Applications, auditing procedures, budgeting rules and other issues will be fair game for the Board.
The Board itself will be chaired by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the most powerful agency in the federal government that nobody has ever heard of. OMB sits within the Executive Office of the President and coordinates budgets across departments – which means it has authority over every department. This gives the OMB the clout necessary, we hope, to force changes in research regulations on reluctant agencies.
Championed by Sens. Alexander (R-Tenn.), Peters (D-Mich.) and Gardner (R-Colo.), with important help from Rep. Comstock (R-Va.), reforming research regulations was seen as a way to increase the efficiency of scarce R&D dollars. In a tight budgetary environment, R&D budgets are unlikely to increase significantly over the next couple of years. Reducing regulatory burdens will allow researchers to conduct more research with the same budget – improving research without spending more money.
IEEE-USA began promoting research regulation reform in early 2016. Backed by government studies documenting the high cost of regulatory compliance, and member complaints verifying these findings, IEEE-USA staff worked directly with congressional staff to consider ways of easing this burden, while still ensuring that research money wasn’t being misspent. Standardizing oversight across agencies accomplished both goals.
More work remains to be done. The new Trump Administration still has to staff the Research Policy Board and take its findings seriously. The government is filled with boards and commissions that do little other than meeting periodically. The engineering and science community will have to work to make sure that does not happen to the RPB.
Additionally, IEEE-USA continues to work with Congress on additional ways to streamline the research process. Potential additional reforms include a simplified preliminary application process and a more realistic annual reporting schedule.
While incomplete, last year’s victories remain significant. In a year in which Congress passed very few bills worth mentioning, research regulation reform is a clear accomplishment that should make many IEEE members’ lives better, while improving the effectiveness of our nation’s R&D programs.
If you have any questions about IEEE-USA research advocacy program, please contact IEEE-USA staffer Aline McNaull at email@example.com.