That’s One Small Step for Research, One Giant Leap for Congress

It is much more difficult to pass a bill than it is to kill one, only a very few survive to become law. Out of 5,140 bills and resolutions before Congress, only 5% will ever be signed into law. The Digital Accountability & Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act), officially S.994, was one of the few and was signed into law on May 9th by President Obama. The act was hailed as being the landmark ‘open data’ legislation that would standardize how the Federal government publishes its spending data and the most powerful government transparency mandate since Congress passed the Freedom of Information Action 1966. The law requires the U.S Department of the Treasury to establish common standards for financial data provided by all government agencies, and to expand the amount of data that agencies must provide to the public-access website USASpending.gov. Essentially, the act enables anyone to Google where the government is spending their tax dollars.

In addition to this added transparency, the DATA Act will impact Universities as well by reducing redundancy and costs associated with Federal reporting. Currently, Universities and other Federally-funded institutions spend millions of dollars complying with duplicative and complicated reporting requirements. Universities have to file reports–yearly and quarterly financial reports, subcontractor monthly reports, and annual principle investigator progress reports–to comply with Federal grant processes. So, instead of focusing on innovation, researchers are spending their time and funding on assembly and submission of often-duplicative reports. The DATA Act now requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review compliance costs faced by the universities and make efforts to reduce them. One outcome is that Universities will be able to automate their complex Federal grant reporting tasks, freeing up tax dollars for better uses and relieving researchers from some of the reporting burden.

However, researchers and taxpayers won’t feel any real impact for a while. As part of the bill, there must be a pilot program, which is slated to begin in May of 2015. The DATA Act pilot program, lasting 2 years, will work on the standardization of reporting elements across the Federal government, the elimination of unnecessary financial reporting duplication, and the reduction of compliance costs for federal award recipients. Ninety days after the pilot program finishes, OMB must report to Congress on whether grant and contract reporting could reasonably be consolidated by data standardization, and what benefits might result.  Within one year of OMB’s report to Congress, all information published on USASpending.gov will adhere to the new government-wide data standards determined.  During the final six months of the program, OMB will extend the new data standards to all government-funded entities by issuing guidance to contractors and grantees.  Just 4.25 years away from the victory of researchers who want to focus on their research rather than a new invoice system.

The countdown begins.