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University of Puerto Rico Initiative Seeks R&D Funds on Capitol Hill

By on March 29, 2019

New office won’t be limited to STEM research, will seek grants for humanities, law and soft sciences

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the March 28 – April 3, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

In mid-February, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) announced an agreement to recruit a person to the PRFAA offices in Washington to help attract federal research funding to the university.

At the most recent meeting of the University Board, UPR President Jorge Haddock Acevedo informed the governing body that the person who would serve under the agreement, which has a budget of $40,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year, would be Elsa Luis.

This would be the second time the president has mentioned Luis as the new liaison between the UPR and the federal government regarding research funding. The first time was when Haddock mentioned Luis’ name during the March meeting of the UPR Governing Board, during which he also generally defended the new position by arguing, “The University of Puerto Rico is going to have this person, [just as] the majority of the universities of the nation have assigned [someone] in Washington.”

How does it compare?

While offices of federal relations, government affairs and other variations on that title are not uncommon at institutions of higher learning in the States, it is worth pointing out that stateside they have broader missions than the agreement between PRFAA and the UPR, which focuses on research funding. The key difference is that the UPR Office of Federal & External Affairs falls under the mandate of the Vice Presidency of Research & Innovation, while federal affairs offices at other universities generally have had a place in the bureaucratic structure that allows them a greater range of influence.

Indeed, when looking at top-ranking public universities, with the exception of military institutions, all have government relations offices for each individual campus, or from their central administration or both. However, these offices serve as advocates for the universities in the federal arena as well as with the local or state government.

For example, the website of University of Massachusetts (UMass), which was Haddock’s previous workplace, indicates “the Government Affairs Department of [the UMass] President’s Office is responsible for monitoring all legislation that affects all aspects of the university, including but not limited to funding for the university and other legislative and policy issues that arrive before the city, state and federal government.”

In the case of the Office of Governmental Relations (ORG) in the University of Illinois System (UI), its 2018 annual report shows the ORG has been actively monitoring the state’s budget process and legislation on financial aid, admissions and pensions, among other matters. The information on the tracked legislation in the report includes its current status as well as UI’s position on each bill.

The ORG report also shows the office has worked to promote various activities in Washington, D.C., for UI members to advocate for or promote the university.

“The ORG made the most out of the time Congress was in session by getting UI System leaders and faculty in front of the Illinois delegation to advance our legislative priorities and interests. The ORG planned several UI System events in Washington and arranged for our experts to participate in opportunities to showcase our strengths and assets,” the report reads.

These activities include a seminar, panel participation and securing participation of six professors to testify in meetings of several committees.

For its part, the University of California (UC) has two offices, State Governmental Relations and Federal Governmental Relations, with the latter in Washington, D.C.

The UC federal affairs office website indicates that the UC is the “the largest public research institution in the world,” but the monthly report also tracks other budget discussions and allocations under “Congressional Legislative Activity” and “Policy & Regulatory Update.”

Private universities also have federal affairs offices that touch on various topics, including but not limited to research.

For example, Harvard University, which has an Office of Federal Relations, has a “congressional to-do list,” and identifies the issues under its purview to “include student financial aid, admissions, scientific research and other policies at the intersection of government and education.” The university’s office has a presence in Cambridge, Mass., and Washington, D.C.

By contrast, the UPR-PRFAA agreement identifies the qualities for the person to hire as a “specialist in concessions of federal funds, who works in planning and advising the agency through analysis, evaluation, interpretation, research and training on the development and presentation of proposals to obtain federal funds that benefit the University of Puerto Rico.”

A federal liaison office for the UPR, which would resemble other universities, could include the tasks of following other budget allocations or funding discussions that are not directly related to preparing proposals. For example, they could secure the participation of UPR representatives to testify at Energy & Natural Resources committee meetings that discuss the impact of the Financial Oversight & Management Board measures. That office would also be tasked with monitoring legislative and executive actions that are not strictly related to funding for higher education, including changes for higher education being proposed by President Trump.

In this particular case

In the UPR president’s March 6 work plan, Haddock states that one of his pillars is “New Revenue,” which includes “research funds” as part of the plan’s five funding sources.

“At any university institution, whether public or private, capturing external funds is a vital priority. Our work plan has established as a priority the strengthening of research, efforts toward the collection of external funds and the recovery of funds from projects subsidized by federal agencies,” says the plan’s introduction to “External Funding for Research.”

Carmen Bachier, vice president of External Research Funds, who will be a contact person between the UPR and the new PRFAA office, explained that the UPR is already considered a “high research activity” institution, and the goal is to maximize research funding opportunities by utilizing a resource in Washington.

“We’ve been very effective in the preparation of proposals, actually. That is why we are classified as a ‘high research institution.’ So, we are very well-positioned when it comes to federal proposals, but we need to maximize and increase [external] funds,” Bachier said.

“Right now, we are working with proposals, but this person, who is in Washington, has the contacts with the agencies, has the access to the officials, and is going to be evaluating the programs that right now have a priority to receive our proposal,” Bachier said.

As for the person expected to finalize the contract—Elsa Luis, of Elsa Luis & Associates LLC—the UPR would be its largest client, from the academic research institution realm. The other academic clients mentioned on her website are Universidad Ana G. Méndez, EDP College and the Initiative Independent Schooling of P.R.

Luis & Associates has an office in Virginia and, according to her website, specializes “on providing capacity building, grant writing and partnership development services.”

Bachier pointed out that for this legislative initiative, which is part of a group of measures to increase external funding for the UPR, several measures will be put in place. She explained that the goal is to increase overall research funding by 20 percent in one year but would also measure proposed amounts from any campus or professor.

The vice president pointed out that when preparing and competing for proposals, the campuses have different levels of activity. Therefore, they will be monitoring if campuses or professors are not only submitting more proposals but also in areas in which they had not previously submitted, including encouraging professors who have not pursued grants or other forms of outside funding.

She added that the office will not be limited to research in science, technology, engineering or math, but will also seek grants for the humanities, law and soft sciences.

Whether the UPR has enough internal resources, such as eligible professors to meet increased research demands, Bachier explained that the UPR’s central administration is collecting information on each campus’ resources and their areas of interest.

Bachier mentioned that part of the initiative is to promote increased participation to attract outside funding, including incentives for professors, which Haddock’s work plan describes as a “reward & recognition” plan that would be organized in collaboration with the vice president of academic affairs.

“We are right now obtaining the information from every campus about what their proposals and strengths are. We want to do mapping or a matching where we can match the research in the strong areas and the strength of the researchers with the opportunities that exist in Washington.”

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