Reducing the Administrative Burden Means You Need to Help Us

My AD forwarded yet another article today (this one in Science Magazine) about the increased administrative burden placed on faculty and researchers. To quote:

A 2007 survey by the U.S. Federal Demonstration Partnership… found that 84% of faculty in the United States believe that the administrative burden associated with federally funded grants has increased significantly in recent years. Most notably, the study indicates that of the total time that faculty devote to research, 42% is spent on pre- and post-award administrative activities. [Here’s the report]

First, this is a perception that is widely shared up and down the research structure. Central offices, research assistants, and researchers alike are being asked to complete more paperwork, submit to more reviews, and respond to more and deeper questioning than ever before. And, with good reason.

Headline-making conflicts of interest and the need to protect subjects, both human and animal, and security concerns in a “post-9/11 world” (what a stupid phrase) demand that regulations tighten to prevent or discover abuses.

My entire job revolves around this issue. The work done building and integrating systems is all done in the name of reducing the need for faculty and staff to redo duplicate forms, assemble printed proposal packages, or manage a paper trail that fills an entire floor (no joke). Our mantra is “do no harm.”

But, here’s our challenge. I can get hundreds of staff people, from research administrators to central office folks, to volunteer their time for months to design a form or automate a business process. What I can rarely get, and never with any commitment of time or extended effort, is a faculty member to do the same.

6,000+ faculty members are represented in the report linked above. 84% believe that their burden has increased in recent years. Yet, over two projects and 4 years, we’ve had to conscript, at most, a dozen faculty members to work with (not “on”) our projects. Of that dozen, none of them are willing or able to commit to more than an hour a quarter specifically to a project.

And so, my plea and promise. I promise, we really do hear your concerns and we really do want to reduce your burden. But we need your help. Not just at my institution, for this is a problem I’ve heard from many other institutions. When we ask–and we’ll ask–we’re not there to disrupt your life. We’re not there because we picked your name out of a hat (in fact, a senior administrator probably pointed us your way with a “they’re always helpful” sort of comment). We’re there because we have questions about how you want to use the system, how you work on a day-to-day basis, how you think the best way could be.

If you don’t give us your time, we understand. But the contract goes both ways; you, by not giving of your time, have to understand that we did our best with the information at hand. We are not psychic. We do not see what happens in your office all day long; we suspect neither does your research administrator, but they’re the only ones giving us information.

So, please, please, when we show up in your office (and we will take the time to come to you), give us a chance. Consider that your time is spent not only in furthering your own work, but the work of hundreds of other researchers around campus. I pledge to not waste your time, to deliver the best product I can, and to credit you every chance I get.

We’ll even get you a T-shirt.

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