The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Cumbersome Agency Grantmaking Process Continues to Burden Universities

GAO recommends a new push for simplicity at OMB, NIH and others.

The $27 billion in research grants that agencies pushed out to universities in 2015 came with some undesired add-ons in the form of increased administrative costs and workloads, the Government Accountability Office said.

Despite years of White House and agency efforts to streamline and standardize the process, auditors said in a July 22 report that agencies have not fully addressed the problem.  

Agencies awarding grants in such fields as public health, space exploration and energy security have not fully examined pre-award requirements to identify those that can be postponed, auditors said. And “some requirements—such as those for obtaining multiple quotations for small purchases—limit universities' flexibility to allocate administrative resources toward oversight of areas at greatest risk of improper use of research funds.”

At the request of members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, GAO examined grant requirements in nine administrative areas from April 2015 to June 2016 by the Energy Department, NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, the last of which awards by far the greatest share of grant dollars. Auditors also examined policies at the Office of Management and Budget, which lays out funding procedures, and efforts to streamline them by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Quality issues surrounding the grants are the responsibility of individual agencies.

For years, OMB and the four agencies have sought to standardize requirements across agencies, streamline pre-award requirements and allow some universities more flexibility for managing risks, GAO noted. “OMB and agency efforts have resulted in some reductions to administrative workload and costs, but these reductions have been limited.”

The four funding agencies continue to differ in the forms they use and the level of detail required in proposed budgets. They also use different financial reporting systems and have different requirements for budget preparation and management, the report said. The result is that universities end up spending time and money on new electronic systems and staff training and hiring.

GAO recommended that the four agencies harmonize requirements and offer universities more flexibility. Energy, NASA and NIH agreed, while OMB and the National Science Foundation declined to comment.

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