Regulating research in academia
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This month, the National Academy of Sciences, in response to a request from Congress, issued a report on the regulation of research universities. I was fortunate enough to serve on the committee that worked on the report. We made dozens of recommendations to modify regulations that we found to be overly burdensome or duplicative. We also recommended a change in way regulation of research is conducted. This change would involve the creation of a Research Partnership Board (RPB) which would be funded by research universities, and a new position at the Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP) which would serve as a liaison to the government for the new RPB.


Debates over regulation tend to focus on the direct costs of regulation (how much it costs to do what the government is telling you to do), and on the intended benefits of regulation (how much cleaner is the environment or how much is the risk of terrorism reduced). In examining the nature of the regulation of research, we indeed saw these aspects of regulatory decision-making. But in many ways, the biggest issue we confronted was the indirect impact of regulation on the very decision to conduct research.

Since World War II, research universities and government have been partners in the creation of basic research that has greatly improved the welfare of the American public and helped make our university system the envy of the world. In our report, we describe this partnership as being "under stress." We heard concerns that "federal regulations and reporting requirements have led to an environment wherein an increasing percentage of scientists' time is spent complying with regulations, rather than the conduct of research, the education of students, and the pursuit of scholarship."

As with most regulations, the time spent ensuring compliance is a significant cost of university research regulations. Much greater, however, might be what economists call the "opportunity cost" of these regulations. If a scientist is spending an appreciable amount of time filling out paperwork, she is not working on her research. It is impossible to know the number of discoveries not made, insights not reached or greater understanding not achieved during this time. And basic research eventually leads to applied research, new technologies, new lifesaving drugs and new understandings of the human condition. The cost of not achieving these goals of research is potentially enormous.

We also clearly recognized that regulation of research serves a purpose. As recipients of taxpayer dollars, research universities have a special responsibility to ensure that these funds are handled responsibly. University researchers must avoid conflicts of interest and violations of ethical norms in the treatment of human or animal subjects. And universities should have systems in place to ensure that their employees do not violate these precepts and are punished if they do.

Our committee is confident that a better balance can be struck between regulating university research to prevent these types of problems and avoiding the stifling of the type of research that has led to so many breakthroughs over the past 70 years. If the recommendations in this report are adopted, we feel that considerable progress toward achieving this balance will be made.

Shapiro is an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at Rutgers University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.