Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Priorities for Federal Innovation Reform: A SRA Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Priorities for Federal Innovation Reform: A SRA Perspective

Article excerpt


The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) solicited responses from a variety of stakeholders to identify ways in which federal policy could be reformed to enhance innovation. The Society of Research Administrators International (SRA) responded to this initiative and identified the following specific priority areas for reform: the peer review process, funding for graduate research, evaluation of federally funded research, support for the research infrastructure, federal partnerships programs, mechanisms for addressing complex (multi-discipline and/or cross-sector) innovations, and accounting principles for R&D in the private and public sectors. This article presents the areas for reform recommended by SRA and the Society's rationale for these recommendations.


The Society of Research Administrators International (SRA) was contacted by the Committee on Technology (CT), National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and the Executive Office of the President on Priorities for Federal Innovation Reform to help "identify priorities for reforming federal policy to enhance innovation." The NSTC initiative is designed "to focus on a few high priority, immediate impact reforms to implement...[and] develop a longer-term reform plan to ensure that Federal policy fosters a proper environment for innovation." [1] NSTC is attempting, through this process, to develop federal regulations and policies that are more responsive to changing technology.

To accomplish these objectives, CT solicited responses from industry; academia; non-profits; and state, local and federal governments. Several potential areas for reform were identified and respondents were asked to identify specific priority areas, the types of reform that should be implemented and a timeframe for implementation. The following paper describes SRA's specific recommendations to the CT along with the Society's justification for each area of reform.

Nature of the Peer Review Process

Numerous agencies have reviewed their own peer review process and the General Accounting Office (GAO) spent many months reviewing the entire federal review process. Although the current system is still considered the best for evaluating funding proposals, it is not perfect. SRA noted the following real or perceived problems in the existing peer review system:

* The review process is unduly influenced by biases for and against certain theoretical frameworks, methodologies, investigators and institutions.

* Innovative theories and novel approaches and models are more often ranked lower than conservative and familiar options.

* Reviewers have the unfair advantage of seeing new advances and may give lower scores to competitors.

* The peer review process is too lengthy, generally taking from several months to a year before funding is approved.

* In general, only incremental advances are funded and even the "cutting edge" projects tend to be extremely conservative.

To eliminate such problems, federal agencies need to adopt the philosophy that innovation is a critical factor in the peer review process and include innovation as one of the review criteria for determining a proposal's success. Moreover, the term "innovation" needs to be redefined as something that is truly cutting edge, not merely an incremental advance in the status quo. The difficulty with innovation is that novel ideas tend to be associated with a high rate of failure, something our legislative bodies and the general public seldom tolerate.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a program, called Small Grants for Exploratory Research, that bypasses the peer review process and has a very short turn around time. This program should be looked at as a basic model for encouraging innovation. However, if a peer review component is needed, it is critical to keep the time, from submission to funding, short to retain the innovative nature of the program. …

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