NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

COMMENT: The Paper Monster [Full link to blog for email clients.]

It came from the stockrooms, fueled by our hopes and dreams of the future - and it's stealing that future bit by bit.

I'm referring to paperwork - and much of the time, on real paper and not just electrons in a computer.

Yes, I've been bitten by the paperwork monster yet again.  When I returned from Germany I was greeted with 5 deadlines - a grant application to be written from scratch in 16 days (typical writing time averages 30-40 days), two manuscript revisions, one manuscript in the process of being written, but due on Aug 28th, and a manuscript to review for a major scientific journal.  With my senior colleague leaving on Aug. 21, and me leaving on Aug 27, it didn't leave much time to get everything done, but we did it, with the last of those tasks completed on the 21st.

Unfortunately, those tasks have proved to not be the only ones necessary within a month's time.  I have two animal care and use protocols due on Sept. 7 and an amendment overdue. We have an industry contract for sponsored research being negotiated, page proofs from one of the resubmissions (that was completed and accepted the week I returned), a progress report, at least 3 laboratory training sessions to complete - and of course slides for three talks to be delivered on this next trip.

The worst of all is the damned paperwork.
  •  My health insurance "flexible spending account" issued a credit card for medically related purchases instead of having us file paper reimbursement forms - except that I have just learned that in essence I must file the exact same paperwork to justify the expenses on the card.
  • We have new documentation requirements for all of the training courses that laboratory staff are required to complete - courses on lab safety, chemical hazards, animal care and use, Conflicts of Interest, financial reporting, responsible conduct of research, workplace behavior... all of it accessible in our computer records, but must now be kept in notebooks of paper records in the lab.
  • The accounting office will no longer accept written indications of foreign currency exchange rates - I must now provide credit card statements along with the paper receipts of all expenditures (even meals) because the paperwork burden is on me due to personnel cutbacks in the service departments
  • New progress report guidelines on research projects require much more detailed financial accounting - to a level that our offices do not typically provide - once again placing the burden on the researcher... instead of doing research.
  • Animal research requires a literal "paper trail" of environmental, health, "enrichment", training and other factors due to government regulations and oversight.  In 10 years our vet staff has more than doubled, and the research oversight office has increased four-fold.
  • ... and these are just a few of the examples of the explosion of regulatory and oversight time and effort (not to mention expense) that are increasingly passed on to researchers - and individuals within society as a whole. 
Yes, we are being nibbled to death by ducks and buried under a mountain of paperwork. Ironically, our "paperless future" has taken a giant leap backward due to the necessity to maintain hard copy records to satisfy audits and inspections.

I don't often turn political in this column, but it is well worth the exercise to remember at election time the burden placed on individuals - from small business to research - by a government that cannot rein in its growth.  While one party is traditionally been viewed as more "supportive" of research, the other party champions a reduction in regulation and government.

I'm not sure which I would prefer - losing 25% of science funding, or having science funding increased by 50% - only to find that I must double expenditures to comply with regulations - which practically results in 25% less funds available for the actual research.

I do know that too much more development in the direction of increased regulation is driving scientists out of business. 

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