Imagine more than half of your income subject to the whims of polarized politicians in a turbulent election year.
“This is what keeps me up at night,” said Neil Sharkey, Pennsylvania State University’s vice president for research.
Sharkey oversees campus research programs and projects worth more than $800 million annually. Federal grants and contracts – spending controlled by Congress each year – make up $510 million, or close to 65 percent, of Penn State’s research spending.
With a federal budget fight looming in Congress next month, Penn State and other higher education lobbyists are applying pressure on lawmakers in hopes of avoiding the kind of partisan-fueled budget showdowns that have become common and threaten to grind government to a halt. University advocates also want increased tax-dollar commitments for research projects.
Federal money enables Penn State research teams to investigate how to adapt U.S. Navy submarines to overcome drag and move faster underwater and to study new ways doctors can track patient health following major heart surgery. Other research areas range from biofuels and sustainable energy to medicine and transportation safety.
“Federal tax dollars really support this country’s research infrastructure,” Sharkey said.
The research conducted at schools like Penn State underpin the United States’ global economic competitive advantage and help educate the innovators of tomorrow, Sharkey argues.
“That’s the big-picture bottom line to all this,” he said.
So when Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., fight over federal spending, major research universities go on high alert.
“We’re in an environment that you just think level funding is a victory because it didn’t get cut,” says Penn State’s Zack Moore, the university’s assistant vice president in charge of governmental relations.
$440,000 Average annual amount Penn State spends on lobbying in Washington, D.C.
Next month, when Congress returns from a nearly two-month recess, Moore says Penn State lobbying efforts will focus on pushing lawmakers to pass a federal budget on time instead of using stopgap options.
To avoid a government shutdown, Congress may approve before Oct. 1 a short-term solution, called a continuing resolution, which maintains current funding levels but won’t add more operating money requested by federal agencies. Agency funding dictates how many research dollars will be available for colleges to compete for grants and contracts.
Higher education lobbyists and advocates, like those at Penn State, say they hope if a continuing resolution is used, it’s only to fund government agencies through December, not long term.
Some worry that Congress instead might kick the can further down the road by passing a longer continuing resolution to keep funding the government at current levels through March. That would leave the responsibility of passing a federal budget up to the next Congress and president.
“It’s a process issue that has significant implications for policy and actual spending,” said Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities.
They’ve made more progress than usual. What we’re saying is, ‘Take it over the finish line.’
Barry Toiv of Association of American Universities on the Congressional budget process
Federal funding, Toiv said, is critical not only for ongoing research on campuses, but also student financial aid programs such as Pell Grants. Universities are hopeful this year that Congress will bring back year-round Pell Grant eligibility – a program that helps low-income college students pay tuition and could be expanded to include summer classes. Currently, a Pell Grant only covers two semesters a year.
“The more resources, the more work we can do for the country . . . The longer there’s a CR, the less likely it is that those good things are going to happen,” Toiv said, referring to a continuing resolution by its initials.
His group represents 60 universities in the United States and two in Canada. Membership is exclusively for research-intensive schools that depend heavily on government funding.
At Penn State, federal funding has grown over the past 10 years, to $510 million last year, from $365 million in 2005. But the growth has not always been stable; in 2014, for example, funding fell by nearly $36 million as federal stimulus payments, aimed at helping communities recover from the economic recession, were phased out.
Even when Congress allocates more money for research efforts, schools aren’t guaranteed more funding. The grant and contract arena is competitive with some agency acceptance rates down to 10 percent of all applicants, Sharkey said.
Budget uncertainty and the limited pool of money are two reasons why Penn State has diversified its research interests. Sharkey calls it having a “balanced portfolio.”
Federal money flows to Penn State from a range of sources, including U.S. agriculture, defense, energy, and health departments, as well as NASA and the National Science Foundation. The university is a designated land, sea, sun and space grant institution, meaning it’s eligible to receive federal funds for a range of public research projects.
Only one other school in the U.S. – Oregon State University – has earned all four designations, the ultimate mark of a well-rounded research enterprise.
The university has five registered lobbyists, including Moore, but only one works full time in Washington, D.C. Others focus on local and state governmental relations, and one is dedicated to the Penn State College of Medicine.
In recent years, Penn State has spent an average of $440,000 annually on lobbying, according to federal lobbying disclosures. Moore said he expects lobbying expenses for 2016 to be similar to last year’s $480,000 spent, the most the university has spent on lobbying since the recession.
Part of the lobbying challenge is aimed at those in Congress who favor steep budget cuts. On Penn State’s behalf, lobbyists are acting like “translators from academic speak to government speak” to emphasize the return on investment campus research produces, Moore said.
$510 million Federal funding Penn State received last year
But, they aren’t jockeying for Congressional earmarks or particular research grants. Instead, Moore said, lobbyists are pushing for increased and reliable federal funding for agencies that award grants and contracts. Researchers and universities compete for those.
It’s the same battle universities across the country are fighting, Toiv said, and there’s a glimmer of hope that this year’s budget negotiations in Congress won’t be as dire as in years past.
Ahead of expected schedule, House and Senate appropriations committees have already passed bills that set the stage for federal spending. Still, chamber and partisan differences remain.
The Association of American Universities sent a letter earlier this month to House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. The group is urging Congress to pass a federal budget before the end of the year instead of leaving federal agencies on “autopilot.”
“They’ve made more progress than usual,” Toiv said. “What we’re saying is, ‘Take it over the finish line.’ ”