Friday, October 3, 2014

A proposal for controlling the amount of paperwork

As anyone who’s tried to submit a grant knows, there is an absolutely enormous amount of paperwork involved. Budgets, front matter, various other little bits and pieces and forms. It’s so much paperwork that it’s basically impossible to apply without a professional grants administrator, which most universities have. In fact, I was recently working with someone who didn’t have access to a grants administrator, and I wanted to have him participate in a grant, and he said that he couldn’t because he didn’t have the time to figure out how to fill out all the forms. Yipes!

I’m sure there are plenty of studies about how paperwork tends to proliferate, but here’s my take on it and a potential solution. My feeling is that every bit of new paperwork comes from some sort of new initiative in which the new paperwork serves to encourage that goal. Like, “We want to promote diversity, so now include a minority involvement plan.” Or, in a recent grant, I had to include a Research Leadership Plan, presumably to encourage thinking about how the PIs will collaborate together. All laudable goals, so it’s sort of hard to argue with these being a good thing, right?

Well, the problem is that this leads to more and more paperwork as these encouraged goals pile up over the years. Here’s a solution, inspired, ironically enough, by the NIH. When we submit a grant, we have a page limit, right? This means that we have to make decisions–if you want to include a particular piece of additional data, then it must come at the expense of another. So why not have a paperwork limit? Like, you can have a certain number and length of forms and no further. Any increase in the amount of paperwork must come at the expense of some other paperwork. Any new form means you have to remove some older form. That would have the added benefit of forcing the paperwork producing bodies to think carefully about what forms are the most important.

Of course, this still has the flaw that people can change the paperwork required, which is annoying to keep up with–take for instance the updated NIH Biosketch. Ugh, annoying. But I guess we should be thankful they didn’t make us submit an additional Biosketch! :)

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