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From the Daily: Costly duplicates

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published February 5, 2013

A Jan. 2013 study published in Nature in found that “an estimated $69 million of possible overlap funds were found” after surveying more than 630,000 grant and contract summaries since 1985. The Federal government funds most public research in the United States through several agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, Veterans Administration, National Science Foundation, Department of Defense and Department of Energy. Most agencies don’t permit or encourage research projects funded by more than one agency. However, this notion is difficult to enforce since researchers can concurrently apply to any number of agencies. Since many of these agencies don’t routinely communicate with other organizations when reviewing grants, it’s easy to understand how duplicate funding occurs. Therefore, a central grant database should be created to minimize financial damage and ensure limited research funding is distributed responsibly.

Such duplication of federal funding is unproductive. Federal money should instead be used to support new projects, and better communication between federal agencies should be implemented to facilitate this goal. Currently, no agencies have systems in place to regularly check if the grants they fund are also being funded by another. Given the enormity of research grants submitted each year for federal funding, it makes financial sense to create a central grant database that would allow each organization to check and thus avoid duplicate funding. Agencies need to dedicate resources to determine overlaps and strengthen communication with each other. Compared to the size of the grants, the cost of checking for overlaps is a small, cost-effective investment.

Though the study concedes that duplicate funding constitutes less than 0.1 percent of total federal funds dispensed since 1985, the $69 million represents a significant amount of taxpayer money that has been used ineffectively. From the public’s perspective, duplicate funding also wastes researcher’s time and drains productivity, both of which can’t be regained. A significant grant from a federal agency like the Department of Defense could sustain a research group for several years. Researchers receiving duplicate funding may be using twice as much time to explore a limited area of inquiry.

Each agency has its own definition of what constitutes an overlap. For example, although the DoD may certify that a project's funding is distinct from a similar project funded by the NIH, the NIH may request that the researchers make these projects more dissimilar in order to receive funding. Multiple standards amongst agencies convolute the grant application process.

As federal research funding continues to tighten to dangerous levels, it’s imperative that federal agencies work together to allocate funding in a fair, efficient manner. Though researchers could be at fault for pursuing duplicate funding, agencies must also make the effort to discourage and prevent duplication. By creating a central database, harmonizing criteria for what constitutes duplicate funding and dedicating more energy to scrutinize funding overlap, agencies will be able to constructively change the funding system. Failure to do so unfairly and unproductively drains taxpayer money and deters scientific progress.