We asked chief research officers: What about administrative burden?

Three Key Insights from Our 2017 Research Administration-Faculty Alignment Survey

Since 2012, one number has become synonymous with research administrative burden: 42%.

The number comes from the Federal Demonstration Partnership’s (FDP) Faculty Workload Survey and is the percentage of time faculty reported spending on meeting administrative requirements for federally funded grants. It’s no surprise then that University Research Forum members asked our team to focus on how universities can do a better job minimizing administrative burden for faculty .

As part of our research, we conducted a brief survey of our own. We asked our chief research officer members for their thoughts on administrative burden—how bad it is and where they see opportunities for reduction. See below our insights from the survey.

1. Ninety percent of respondents believe administrative burden has increased or remained the same in the last five years

research administrative burden

Respondents were asked, “If the next FDP survey were conducted today, what do you think would happen to the 42%?” The vast majority of respondents (90%) believe the rate will increase or remain the same. Only three respondents (10%) believe the rate would decrease.

At one level, this probably isn’t surprising. Since 2012, the number of regulations with which universities must comply has grown, while the available funding for basic research has flat lined. As faculty pursue less familiar funding sources, be they mission-focused federal agencies (e.g., DOE, DOD) or non-federal sources (e.g., companies, foundations), the number of rules and roadblocks increases.

On the other side, Chief research officers deserve credit for the strides they have made since 2012. More than half of respondents believe the 42% rate will remain the same, and this is a testament to the initiatives many have put in place on their campuses. The maturation of software tools that support that administrative process has simplified workflow for both faculty and staff, while more fungible organizational models allow for greater flexibility in supporting faculty cohorts.

Lastly, a more concentrated advocacy network, including FDP, COGR, APLU, AAU, and others, has emphasized the breadth of drivers behind administrative burden.

2. Chief research officers on average believe their offices are “Effective” in managing research administrative processes

research admin burden 

On a six-point scale ranging from “Very Ineffective” to “Very Effective,” respondents graded themselves an average of “Effective.” Overall the responses are almost evenly divided between “Somewhat Effective” (50%) and “Effective” (40%), with three respondents selecting “Very Effective” (10%).

This trend is a bit of a double-edge sword. On one hand, it’s an acknowledgement that institutions on the whole have done well to remain on top of the ever changing challenge of administrative burden. It also suggests the agencies and regulators are (almost) solely to blame for increasing burden. Certainly the growth in regulations plays a big role in expanding burden, but the data on the effectiveness of specific functions suggest there’s work still to be done at the campus level.

research administrative burden 

Specifically, responses show that “Finding Funding” and “Award Closeout” are areas in need of improvement. As cited in the FDP study, the proposal preparation process is ranked the most burdensome and, with an ever-expanding number of potential funding sources, universities can do more to help faculty identify relevant applications. Faculty also consider the process of closing out an award burdensome, specifically the reporting requirements.

3. Post-Award and Compliance are the areas where respondents see the greatest opportunities to reduce burden

research administrative burden 

When asked to rank the five areas of research administration in order of greatest opportunity to reduce burden, 44% of respondents ranked Post-Award first, while 33% of respondents ranked Compliance first. Despite receiving high “Effectiveness” scores, respondents largely agree that the financial and regulatory components of the research process remain the most challenging and require the most attention if institutions are to minimize burden.

On the Post-Award side, respondents identified opportunities to speed up award access timelines and streamline reporting requirements. They also identify the need for better collaboration with functions outside of the research office, such as procurement and finance, which play an important role in easing the Post-Award burden.

For Compliance, respondents describe a two-prong approach to curb regulatory requirements. At the institution level, research offices are identifying areas of potential self-imposed burden and attempting to reverse over-compliance wherever possible. Federally, institutions are seeking better-honed messaging through advocacy groups, professional associations, and athletics conferences to share best practices and promote a legislative process that decreases regulations.

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