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Colleges look hard to replace earmarks

Lobbyists help scour D.C. for new funds

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / September 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Dozens of Massachusetts colleges are scrambling to find alternate ways to pay for research programs, campus construction, and other initiatives to make up for the loss of federal money once delivered through so-called earmarks.

A two-year moratorium on the practice, which allowed lawmakers to tack dollars for pet projects onto a bill without debate, hits the state particularly hard. In the past three years alone, colleges in the Bay State received more than $57 million to fund items such as a large telescope at University of Massachusetts Amherst, a library renovation at Lesley University, and research on biological warfare at Boston University, according to the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

In response to the freeze, schools are turning to Washington lobbyists to prowl the federal bureaucracy on their behalf, pleading with local benefactors to make up the difference in funds, and aggressively seeking federal grants. Researchers have been forced to shift priorities or lower their ambitions. In some cases, workers have been let go.

“What’s happening now in the post-earmark world is that it becomes a multifaceted strategy,’’ said Michael Armini, who oversees Northeastern University’s government relations. “It’s not just all about Capitol Hill.’’

For large institutions such as Northeastern and Boston University, the shift means beefing up their staffs with consultants and lobbying firms to help them navigate other potential funding paths and pitch directly to federal research agencies.

“All serious major universities are strengthening their federal relations,’’ said Jean Morrison, provost at BU, which is seeking an assistant vice president for federal relations. “Lobbying is just one part. The other part is to be knowledgeable about what kinds of things the federal government and different agencies are going to want to be funding.’’

Northeastern has added two full-time lobbyists as part of an effort to expand its footprint in Washington. Its president, Joseph Aoun, flies down here monthly, more frequently than any previous leader of the university, and the school is hiring additional D.C.-based lobbying firms with a specific focus on federal agencies.

Though earmarks accounted for less than 5 percent of its federal research funding, Northeastern has long fared well under the system, most notable being its 1986 haul of $15 million for the construction of its main library, secured by Senator Edward M. Kennedy and House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr.

Since the practice ended earlier this year, the university has scaled back its ambitions. It had sought $6 million to study the effects of fatigue and dehydration on combat troops, as well as to launch a center on defense-related information technologies.

For Northeastern and other universities, the focus has increasingly shifted to efforts to obtain federal grants. Often, such a switch means shifting priorities toward issues - such as health care and national security - that hold the most promise for approval.

Such grants are, by their nature, more difficult to win because proposals must be peer reviewed and money is awarded on merit, not political clout. In addition to the increased competition, university leaders worry about the shrinking pool of available funds given the pressure on Congress to rein in spending.

As funding shrinks, universities must consider cutting workers and prioritizing programs, Morrison said.

For example, the BU Photonics Center - a beneficiary of a $29 million earmark courtesy of Kennedy in 1993 - has received an average of about $5 million a year in earmarks for defense-related research into such areas as prototypes for instruments detecting bacteria warfare agents. The loss of that money, 25 percent of its research dollars, resulted in the university laying off a handful of workers, said Tom Bifano, director of the center.

At UMass Dartmouth, which for the past seven years has received about $4 million a year in earmarks for fisheries research, faculty must now be more aggressive in writing grant applications to a larger variety of federal agencies, piecing together various types of funding like patchwork, said Steve Lohrenz, dean of the School of Marine Science and Technology.

“This is going to make it more difficult to do some of the critical science that has been important to the region,’’ Lohrenz said.

The schools’ congressional representatives will not be completely out of the loop. Niki Tsongas, Democrat of Lowell, has requested $4 million in an amendment to a defense bill, for the Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing at UMass Lowell. Unlike the $4 million earmark the center received last year, the money would be drawn from an existing fund that is supposed to require competitive bidding.

Representative Michael Capuano, Democrat of Somerville, has received more requests from schools to weigh in on their behalf for funding by federal agencies, prompting him to draft letters about the importance of the schools and their research.

Capuano’s district represents 34 four-year institutions, the most in the country, he said. More than a dozen of the schools had submitted a total of $94 million in earmark requests this fiscal year.

Earmarks have had a long history in Massachusetts. In the late 1970s, Tufts University received earmarks for a nutrition center and veterinary school - the first known congressional appropriations secured through paid lobbyists. That ignited decades of earmark spending as more schools and politicians sought to get a share - with scarce attention to a project’s merit, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group.

“But just like the days of disco had to come crashing down, so did earmarks,’’ Ellis said. “Like the stock market and the housing market, the bubble burst. Even if an earmark is good, we don’t know if it’s the best or the most critical. What we do know is that earmarks are the province of the powerful.’’

Rather than level the playing field, though, some lawmakers and college officials fear that doing away with earmarks puts smaller schools at a disadvantage. Without national name recognition, a legislator pulling for them, deep pockets, or a track record of winning federal grants, such schools will have a more difficult time, said Representative Barney Frank.

“We worry about the smaller universities because they can’t afford to hire lobbyists,’’ said Frank, a Newton Democrat who unsuccessfully fought for a $1.2 million earmark last year to renovate Lasell College’s science labs.

Some smaller schools such as Lesley University in Cambridge, which relied on earmarks for between 25 to 40 percent of its federal funding, are turning to private benefactors or foundations. Lesley, which has received earmarks for modernizing its science labs and developing teacher preparation programs, is seeking philanthropic help to continue its work with teachers.

Wheelock College has stretched the $1.3 million it received in 2010 earmarks for math and early childhood education programs and facilities upgrades over two years to make do, said its president, Jackie Jenkins-Scott. The programs, however, face cancellation if the college cannot find alternative funding, she said.

“It’s really very, very worrisome,’’ said Jenkins-Scott. “The federal funding situation is so unstable right now that we have no idea where we might go to replaces these funds.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.