You have to get dirty if you want to clean up

September 7, 2001

US universities are learning that lobbying is the key to their long-term financial health.

The hotly contested stem-cell debate shows the growing willingness of US universities to step down from the ivory tower and enter the political fray.

Forming a coalition with patient advocacy groups and industry, higher education officials squared up to the powerful American religious right to battle for research rights. Although they only won a partial victory, they at least succeeded in forcing President George W. Bush to handle the issue "with care", according to Terry Hartle, director of government affairs at the American Council on Education.

Political lobbying is an increasingly accepted fact of life for US universities with $40 billion (£28.4 billion) in student aid and more than $25 billion in research budgets at stake every year.

In the mid-1980s, only a handful of universities had government liaison officials, typically juggling their tasks with other duties, according to Peter Smith, public affairs director of the American Association of Universities. Today, 50 to 60 have dedicated officials and many, such as the universities of California and Michigan, maintain high-powered teams in Washington DC.

Boston University outspent software giant Microsoft on lobbying in 1999, spending $760,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Overall, 1,008 lobbyists did the bidding of education groups, outstripping activities on behalf of financial institutions and utilities.

Higher education lobbyists have been most successful in securing funding windfalls for medical science research. Next year, for example, there will be $23.2 billion available to biomedical researchers in universities.

It was not a hard sell, admits Howard Garrison, director of public affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (Faseb). "People want to hear our story. Doors open."

Lobbyists such as Faseb have also had some powerful forces from outside higher education fighting their corner. In fact, biomedical research faced funding cuts in the mid-1990s before the decisive intervention of business. The turning point was testimonies from pharmaceuticals company executives and biotechnology industry representatives to then speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. "They explained that it was impossible for industry to invest in broad fundamental research and that firms were dependent on federally funded research coming out of university laboratories," Garrison says.

Universities now exploit a range of channels to lobby those in control of the purse strings. After animal rights campaigners won a court ruling forcing the US Department of Agriculture to regulate rodents and birds, the National Association for Biomedical Research enlisted Wallace Conerly, vice-chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Conerly convinced local senator Thad Cochran, leader of the Senate USDA budget committee, to suspend funding for the regulations until this October, arguing that the regulations could be onerous for researchers without significantly increasing animal welfare. The manoeuvre bought more time for the NABR, which defends the use of animals in research, to plot to extend the funding ban.

As part of their tax-free status, most higher education groups in Washington are forbidden from spending more than 20 per cent of their budgets on lobbying. But they are free to pursue education initiatives such as briefing the media and hosting receptions for academics and lawmakers.

But despite increasingly vigorous and sophisticated machinations, some higher education issues have not fared well. Long-standing opposition from conservative politicians makes it difficult for lobbyists to make a case for an increase in the relatively meagre $200 million budget for arts and humanities research. "Hard science research can pay off in ways that the arts and humanities cannot demonstrate," Hartle says.

Stagnant funding for physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering research has spurred Mary Good, dean at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, to set up a physical sciences advocacy group to put the case that insufficient investment in physical science will hurt economic progress. Bankrolled by more than $200,000 from charitable foundations, the Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America has signed up about 30 universities, scientific societies and firms such as IBM and Lucent Technologies since its inception last year.

But Good says the group faces a difficult job because US science funding is administered by myriad groups, including the National Science Foundation, the Department of the Environment, the Defense Department and Nasa, among others.

However successful their lobbying efforts prove to be, US academics are realising that a distaste for politics is one luxury they cannot afford.

Stephen Phillips

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