Campus researchers participate in survey about their workload

Over 800 UC Berkeley researchers have been invited to share how overworked they are in a nationwide survey of federally funded researchers that is sponsored by the Federal Demonstration Partnership.

The survey — whose initial results are expected to be released by the end of this year — is seeking input from 823 campus researchers in approximately 80 departments, according to Pamela Miller, director of the campus Sponsored Projects Office.

According to its website, the partnership “is a cooperative initiative among 10 federal agencies and 119 institutional recipients of federal funds.”

The survey is meant to explore “specific areas of administrative workload and examin(e) new sources of research workload,” said Sandy Schneider, vice chair of the partnership and principal investigator on the survey, in an email.

Many campus researchers expressed frustration with the overwhelming demands placed upon them by a lack of administrative support.

“You get zero support as a researcher,” said Berend Smit, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

In order to get by, Smit said he is forced to use research money to hire someone to do administrative work — a burden that he said takes away from funds set aside for research projects.

Smit said that without earmarking some research funds for this purpose, “we would be overwhelmed.”

He noted that in addition to money given specifically for research, federal grant providers like the National Science Foundation are required to provide extra funds called “overhead” to the university for costs associated with infrastructure.

At private universities and research centers outside of the university, overhead might be funneled back more directly to researchers for covering costs like administrative assistance, but within the system, overhead funds are channeled back to university chancellors to distribute the funds.

The ongoing study is a follow-up to a 2005 Faculty Workload Survey by the partnership, which offered insight as to the amount of time federally funded researchers spent on nonresearch activities such as administrative tasks.

The 2005 survey found that 42 percent of the time, federally funded researchers committed to research was spent not on active research but on pre- and post-grant award administrative activity. Additionally, 95 percent of respondents said they could spend more time on active research if they had more administrative assistance.

“There is a disconnect between what you actually get in service and what a center needs in service,” Smit said.

However, astronomy professor Geoff Marcy said he sees a disconnect between the aims of the survey and what it is actually doing — taking up more time of an already overworked researcher.

“(They) are sending me a survey about how much I am overworked, but I don’t have time for this,” Marcy said.

Pointing to his massive email inbox, Marcy said that he had so many people to contact that he probably would not fill out the survey.

“We are so overworked,” he said.

Sara Grossman covers research and ideas.