Audit: Reporting requirements for grant money are too burdensome

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Agencies can do more to make it easier for university staff to file paperwork for federal research, a government watchdog report has found.

It is still too complicated to comply with reporting requirements for federally funded research, university representatives said in interviews with Government Accountability Office auditors.

Officials have made moves in recent years to try to standardize reporting requirements, streamline administrative pre-award burdens and give universities more flexibility, the auditors said, but the reductions in workload and costs “have been limited.” Agencies implement requirements in different ways and still require extensive pre-award documentation, some university staff and researchers interviewed told the report’s authors.

They also said the reporting requirements have become more prescriptive, adding to university workload and costs.

The auditors interviewed representatives from six universities for the report and researched requirements from the Office of Management and Budget, Energy Department, NASA, National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.

The agencies — excluding OMB, which doesn’t fund grants but is in charge of issuing governmentwide requirements — made up about 83 percent of federal funding for universities and colleges in fiscal year 2015, the report mentions, citing NSF data.

“GAO recommends that OMB, DOE, NASA, NIH, and NSF identify additional areas where requirements, such as those for budgets or purchases, can be standardized, postponed or made more flexible, while maintaining oversight of federal funds,” the authors wrote in the report highlights.

The report comes after the Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill last month that would seek to cut down on administrative requirements for science and technology research.

[Read more: Senate Commerce Committee approves technology research policy bill]

If passed, the bill would do away with some reporting requirements and establish an interagency working group, led by the Office of Management and Budget and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to discuss administrative burden.

The GAO report recommends a discussion on administrative burden with OSTP’s current working group on Research Business Models to further standardize reporting requirements.

University representatives told the report’s authors that agencies require different formatting or information when writing biographical sketches of the researchers. Requirements for reporting on conflicts of interest also vary, according to the report. Likewise, forms and levels of detail required when reporting budget differ among the agencies, the people interviewed said.

The DOE, NASA and HHS agreed generally with the GAO’s findings and recommendations. NSF and OMB provided oral comments on the report but did not comment on the recommendations.

“Opportunities remain for research funding agencies to achieve additional reductions in administrative workload and costs while still protecting against waste, fraud and abuse,” the report says.

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Agencies, Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Departments, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF)
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