How to Balance Science With Compliance?

It’s a fact that the compliance burden (often in the form of unfunded mandates) continues to increase on U.S. scientists and those who support the scientific enterprise here. This increased burden is, to some extent, of our own making as their have been several high profile missteps by U.S. scientists and science institutions which to say the least, has been embarrassing.  But the burden has also been rising inexorably because of the increasing awareness of the taxpayers’ right to have oversight over how taxpayer dollars are put to work for science progress. The end result of this burden is that U.S. scientists have less time at the bench, less time at the bed-side and increasingly are looking at attractive offers from overseas.

What can we do to balance these two often conflicting demands?

It seems to me one thing is to make sure we educate the mid-level compliance officers who are assigned the unenviable job of watching over the practicing scientists to a common mutually agreed upon level–so that there is some degree of certainty of what will be actually be required. This is especially true between different institutions. The notion of one institution, one grant is somewhat quaint. Increasingly, a successful approach, requires a multi-disciplinary team assembled across multiple institutions.

The second, is to educate our trainees that performing compliance requirements is part and parcel of the ethical and responsible conduct of science. All too often, there is a cultural gestalt, passed down by those of us in faculty positions, that all of this is just so much “noise” and that often the best response is to simply ignore a compliance request (in the hopes that it just goes away). Obviously, this is wrong and, more dangerously, puts institutions at risk.

The third, is to work with elected officials and policy decision-makers towards a workable middle-road,  such that there is an understanding that what might be appropriate oversight for the likes of a defense contractor operating in theater, is very different from the oversight required for a typical bench-top scientist PI at an American academic institution. One size definitely doesn’t fit all.

In short, compliance has become a tripping hazard of American-style science. It’s important to begin a larger societal conversation about this issue before the tripping hazard turns into a brain drain.