FDP members want more improvements  

They’re raising questions about biggest burdens

Members of the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) are aiming high in their latest efforts at improving efficiencies and reducing unnecessary paperwork during research.

For one example, researchers, professors, and administrators in the FDP have made it clear to federal officials that they need clerical help to carry out many of the regulatory requirements, says Marvin Paule, PhD, professor and interim chair of biochemistry and molecular biology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

"Just the clerical aspect of taking care of all this [documentation] is quite onerous," he says.

For example, investigators who have a number of different studies at one time may have particular paperwork that has to be filed each, only each document is different, Paule notes.

Since they may not fill out a particular report more than once or twice a year, they will have to look up instructions for each report, and all of this adds to their time burden without providing any value to the research, he says.

In addition, many researchers will have to file paperwork for each of their postdoctoral assistants to the point where the burden becomes onerous, Paule says.

"One of my colleagues filed 18 reports in one year because he had post-docs and undergraduates doing research, and it snowballs to the point where I don’t think the agencies realize how much time we’re spending on that kind of stuff," Paule adds. "It’s gotten worse and worse and it detracts from what we’re trained to do."

However, federal grant rules prohibit researchers from using grant money to hire someone to handle the paperwork burden.

"A lot of researchers are saying, If we could have a super tech, a project coordinator that is elevated and could fill out a lot of these forms, then that would relieve the high-paid faculty member to do research,’" says Thomas Higerd, PHD, professor of microbiology and associate provost of institutional research and assessment at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

Also, if the regulations would allow researchers to have an expert coordinator handle the paperwork, it would benefit the government in the long run by increasing the amount of research that could be done, he adds.

A solution would be to use direct grant funds to hire an expert coordinator who would not only file some of the paperwork, but answer questions for researchers about paperwork that they will continue to file themselves, Paule says.

The FDP has begun to entertain discussions about this issue with the possibility that a potential solution will be initiated on a trial basis, Higerd notes.

"That’s probably the No. 1 issue that I glean from the faculty side," he notes. "The tremendous amount of paperwork has become so burdensome that some researchers may even stop doing research."

Likewise, researchers and administrators would like to change effort-reporting requirements for investigators, FDP members say.

"It’s very hard for physicians and other scientists to understand the concept of effort," says Elizabeth Mora, associate vice president for research administration department at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.

"They want to think, If I work 80 hours a week then that’s 200% effort,’ but the government says that whatever amount of time you work is 100%, whether it’s 30 hours or 70 hours," she explains.

Also, investigators have difficulty determining exactly how much time they’ve spent on any particular project, Mora notes.

For example, a researcher might be conducting studies at a university, holding clinical trials at a teaching hospital, teaching at one or more universities, and have a Veterans Affairs appointment or private practice, notes John Bain, associate director of cost analysis and compliance department at Harvard University. "Trying to keep track of all of those parts of their work quantitatively is very difficult."

Nonetheless, federal grants require investigators to break down their time per project and report how much effort they put into each project, Bain and Mora say.

This has posed problems for some institutions when effort reporting has been done incorrectly and is later audited by federal officials.

A better solution might be to use the annual progress reports as a proxy to effort reporting, Mora suggests.

Instead of expecting investigators to punch time clocks for each study, it would be better to look at the big picture of whether or not they are producing research and publishing their findings, Mora and other FDP members say.

"No matter how much effort someone says they are spending on a study, if they are not showing results then it doesn’t matter," Mora says. "My peers will not refund me, so there are built-in checks and balances."

An FDP subcommittee is reviewing different options for replacing effort reporting, and the next step will be to meet, discuss these options, and listen to feedback from federal officials, Bain says.

Another issue FDP members would like to address involves the required space surveys, he adds.

"We’ve had a couple of different meetings about it and have tried different models and approaches, but have not yet landed on a recommended resolution," Bain says.

Space surveys require institutions to measure the facilities where research takes place and then allocate the portion of those facilities that are used for organized research in order to recover facility costs, including utilities and maintenance, he explains.

Conducting space surveys is complicated and expensive, Bain adds.

The goal is to come up with a method that is cheaper, easier, and more efficient for institutions to use, he says.

"Our goal is not to get more money out of the government, but to spend less of our money on compliance," Bain says. "The administrative cost recovery has been capped since 1993 or so at 26%, so if your administrative costs exceed 26%, which in most cases it does, then the additional costs come out of your own pocket."

Another concern of research administrators and investigators, which they hope to discuss at FDP meetings, involves the new problems they are having with recruiting foreign students, Paule says.

"The federal government has really cut back on visas for foreign students, and we are seriously falling behind the rest of the world in recruiting the best and brightest minds outside of the United States," he says. "If you look over the past few decades, you will find that many of the major achievements in basic science have been made by foreign students in the United States."