Reducing Administrative Burden in University Research Grants

The blog post entitled “Why OMB’s Effort to Reduce Administrative Burden for Research Grants Fell Short” discussed various reasons why the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has been unsuccessful minimizing administrative burdens on university research. A new IBM Center report by Lisa Mosley, Jeremy Forsberg, and David Ngo explores ways that administrative burdens could be reduced by looking at what could be done at each stage of the research grant cycle –the proposal phase, the award phase, the post-award phase, and thereafter. Some of these recommendations are discussed in more detail below.

Reducing Burdens at the Proposal Phase.

Researchers develop a research plan that commonly include an abstract, budget, biographies of the researchers, and the use of facilities and other resources; however, each funding agency requires these documents in a slightly different format and may make additional requirements as well. While less than a quarter of the proposals are funded, it takes researches on average thirty-eight days to prepare.

Mosley, Forsberg and Ngo recommend that all agencies adopt the use of standardized “pre-proposals,” a best practice used by agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). Pre-proposals usually are only 3-5 pages in length and describe a high-level scope of work, budget, and bios. If a proposal is accepted, then a more detailed version would be prepared. This would reduce the amount of wasted time researchers face when their proposals are not accepted. It will also reduce the time spent by agencies in reviewing long proposals that were not seen as meritorious.

Reducing Burdens at the Award Phase.

Agencies convene peer review panels that review proposals and select those deemed worthwhile during a four to nine-month span. The authors recommend governmentwide adoption of a best practice used at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) called “just-in-time.”  This approach delays the collection of details information until after a grantee has been provisionally selected, but before a grant is awarded. This would include details such as approved protocols for human or animal subjects, mentoring plans, bios of key personnel proposed for the project, and a more detailed budget.

Reducing Burdens at the Post-Award Phase.

The greatest administrative burdens are at this stage, where researchers must accurately account for their grant spending, including their time spent on a project, and how universities draw down their funding from the federal government. A typical project can last from one to five years. Agencies vary in the frequency of financial and technical reports. The authors recommend governmentwide adoption of the use of “fixed amount” grants, whereby most reporting requirements are waived for modest-sized grants. Smaller grants are less likely to pose serious risk of fraud, waste, and abuse and any potential risk would be offset by larger increases in productivity as a result of lower administrative burdens. The authors explain that “the focus of accountability would be shifted to the outcomes of research performance” and payments would be tied to the completion of agreed upon milestones. They point to examples of where the fixed-amount concept is used in other federal programs, such as the Simplified Acquisition Threshold. They recommend a threshold of $250,000, which is what the Uniform Guidance currently allows for fixed amount sub-awards (but not for prime awardees). Since the average NSF grant is about $177,000, this would significantly reduce administrative burdens for its grants.