Now we know where R & D dollars go

The CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a senior vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania coauthored an interesting piece recently that sheds some light on why most scientific research costs so much and delivers so little.

They cite a survey released in 2007 that estimated 42% of American researchers' time goes into administrative tasks, compared with 18% two decades earlier. They bring this up now because an update of the original study is due to come out soon, and expectations are that the situation hasn't improved, despite a lot of teeth gnashing that accompanied the original study.

That sounds bad, and inside this dark cloud is another dark cloud. "The survey looked only at the administrative hours logged by the principal researchers; it did not take into account the tasks performed by laboratory staff and trainees or by the army of administrators hired to handle increasingly complex requirements of reporting and assurance," the two academics write. "For example, in 2001, just 4% of the University of Pennsylvania's research budget went toward regulation-compliance efforts. Today such activities account for more than 20% of the budget."

Of course, there has been a lot of ink spilled about a perceived lack of US innovation though this country spends billions on R&D. Courtesy of these two researchers, we can now see where some of the problems lie. They cite one public university which said its administrative costs tied to federal grants had jumped from $3.5-million in 2005 to nearly $6-million in 2010. At another institution, they say, the costs of compliance and quality assurance increased from about $3-million in 2000 to $12.5-million in 2010.

Some of the regulatory burden they are carping about relates to the safety of human subjects in drug trials. They claim that these tests can be made even safer if there was some sanity brought to the regulation process, and doing so would encourage more innovation to boot. "Oversight of dual-use biological research, while important, is also rife with redundancies. Laboratories with grants from multiple agencies must comply with an array of time-consuming site visits, and they must duplicate the same information again and again," the two researchers say.

They argue for a streamlined research process. They claim this would not only foster innovation, but would, understandably, improve the morale of researchers bummed out by scut work.

The original article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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