8/13/14 9:00 AM EDT
Some of the nation’s most elite universities are deep into defense lobbying, often hiring Washington-based firms to press Congress and the Pentagon to fund their science projects.
It’s all about Big Research and Big Money.
“When it comes to lobbying on the Hill, most universities have a large footprint,” said high-powered defense lobbyist Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International and now has seven university clients: Drexel University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University, Temple University, University at Albany — SUNY, Clemson University and Florida Atlantic University.
Herson also represents big-name defense contractors like General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.
“In the defense space, it’s been our experience that it’s a lot of the engineering schools that lobby,” he said, noting that technology, cybersecurity and munitions were also big fields for colleges. He said his work for university clients is “almost exclusively” related to research-and-development issues.
“It raises their stature to be able to say they’re doing this kind of work for the Department of Defense,” he said.
And some colleges benefit from big-ticket defense programs.
In 2005, for instance, the director of a manufacturing institute at Pennsylvania State University wrote about a new opportunity for the school: the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program, which was in its early stages.
Bob Cook, who then led the Institute for Manufacturing and Sustainment Technologies at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory, said in the institute’s quarterly newsletter that the school had the “talent and expertise” to help with the LCS program and urged the Navy to “take advantage of us.”
His enthusiasm for the combat ship highlights the big money that’s at stake: Universities bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each year through Defense Department contracts and grants.
And dozens of universities reported lobbying for their slice of the pie during the previous quarter.
Princeton University advocated on issues related to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which sponsors high-risk technology endeavors. New York University lobbied on Defense Department suicide prevention funding. And Indiana University lobbied on Pentagon-funded concussion research.
Penn State, it turned out, never did any work directly sponsored through the LCS program, but researchers there have worked on technologies “whose outputs were transitioned to the LCS program,” according to spokesman Reidar Jensen.
Penn State reported spending $180,000 on lobbying during the first half of the year, with an in-house team that includes a pair of former congressional staffers.
The school’s lobbyists pushed last quarter for funding for defense research, according to disclosure forms filed with the Senate. They also advocated specifically for LCS mission modules — the sensors and weapons that can be swapped on and off each ship to respond to different threats.
In all, Penn State brought in $187 million Defense Department funds last year, 14 percent through grants and the rest through contracts. The Pentagon provided 22 percent of the school’s total research funding, according to Jensen. And much of it went to the school’s Applied Research Laboratory, one of the Navy’s five affiliated research centers.
“Penn State’s expertise is in undersea technologies,” Jensen said. “Penn State works to educate members of Congress and staff about its defense research activities and capabilities, and advocates for funding in areas where university researchers can enhance U.S. national security and improve the safety of U.S. war fighters.”
Penn State, though, is far from alone in bringing in big bucks from the Pentagon.
A 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service noted that colleges and universities are the largest performers of basic research in the country — and the federal government was their top source of funding. And a report this year by the National Science Foundation found that the federal government spent $137 billion on research and development last fiscal year, with $73 billion coming from the Defense Department.
The science foundation ranks universities each year on the amount of federal funding they pull in. On the latest rankings, based on 2011 data, Johns Hopkins was No. 1, at $1.7 billion, followed by the University of Washington and the University of Michigan.
Penn State was No. 8. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, home to one of nine research-and-development centers funded by the Defense Department, was No. 24. MIT’s R&D center, Lincoln Laboratory, performs more than $700 million in work for the military each year. And the MIT campus does another $100 million, mostly grants.
But unlike traditional defense contractors, MIT makes no profit operating Lincoln Laboratory for the Defense Department, according to MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber.
“We do this as a service to the nation,” she said, explaining the school was involved in “logistics, all kinds of robotics. We have a grant looking at improvement in health care delivery to veterans. We develop devices to assist soldiers on the battlefield, to help make them safer.”
MIT reported spending $89,919 on lobbying during the first half of the year.
Zuber, though, rejected the idea that MIT employs lobbyists, explaining the school’s Washington staffers don’t have to register as lobbyists and do so only for transparency reasons.
“MIT asks them to register, even though they do not come remotely close to doing what is required to be a lobbyist,” she said. “We do not advocate for particular research grants or awards from any federal agency.”
MIT’s policy “is to support and advocate for the overall health of the research and education system in this country,” she said.
She also noted that MIT and other universities fill the vital role of performing basic research — studies done to further scientific knowledge without a practical goal.
Asked whether students or professors ever have ethical objections to working on projects funded by the Defense Department, Zuber said that “no professor has to take money from DoD.”
“We’re a bottom-up organization,” she said. “Professors make those choices.”
She also said that “if there are students who have a feeling that they don’t want to work on defense-related issues, they certainly don’t have to.” But, she added, “a whole lot seem to want to.”
Like MIT, the Association of American Universities, an alliance of 62 of the leading research institutions in the United States and Canada, advocates defense research funding but doesn’t press for specific grants or contracts.
And like traditional defense contractors, the association has been sounding the alarm about further rounds of sequestration — the federal spending cuts that could return in fiscal 2016 and would affect weapons contracts as well as basic research funding.
“We want the enterprise to grow broadly,” said association spokesman Barry Toiv.
Herson, the defense lobbyist, said universities have major sway on Capitol Hill — sometimes more than big-name defense firms. And he attributed that to three factors: the amount of physical space they take up in congressional districts across the country, plus the number of people they employ and students they enroll.
“They’re doing a lot of things that create jobs,” he said.