To Win at DC Politics, Work the Campus Politics First

Mike Waring
AUTM Advocacy and Alliances Coordinator

Universities are massive operations with a range of interests that relate to the federal government: Student support. Research funding. Tax laws. Regulatory compliance. It’s a lot for any institution’s federal relations staff to keep track of, and there is a constant struggle to prioritize which issues the staff will focus on each day.
Technology transfer offices also have important issues: Funding for tech transfer, such as the new Accelerating Research Translation (ART) program at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Patent legislation that could help or hurt your ability to move discoveries from the lab to the marketplace. Regulatory issues that could affect how the Bayh-Dole laws are overseen.
Getting your issues onto the federal relations staff’s broader to-do list for your university is often a challenge, but there are things your tech transfer office can do to make that process work better. At a session I moderated at the recent AUTM Annual Meeting in Austin, several panelists shared their suggestions.
First, make sure you have a personal relationship with your federal relations team. You should share with them information about your operations – your annual report, press releases about new startups, and other measures of the impact your office is having on the region around your campus. Help them understand how your business works, so that they can translate that information for members of Congress and their staff in DC.
Next, be sure to keep your own boss (often the Vice President of Research) in the loop on issues as they come forward. AUTM constantly updates its members on new challenges and opportunities in Washington, and you should communicate regularly with your superiors and make them understand how these issues can  impact your ability to do your job. Your goal is for your bosses to advocate for your office when they meet with senior university leadership and the federal relations staff.
Finally, be ready to provide data and stories to your DC lobbyists. Personalized anecdotes from your own campus are often crucial for helping a congressional staffer understand why your university needs that staffer’s boss to support tech transfer. In addition, be ready to respond when AUTM sends out quick surveys to gather information that can be shared broadly about the potential impact that proposed laws or regulations can have. That data can help us provide real-time feedback for people making important decisions about policy.
As a private citizen, you can communicate directly with congressional offices. But you cannot speak for the university itself, and your communication cannot be shared on university letterhead. That is why engaging with your federal relations team is so important. They have direct and regular contact with these Capitol Hill offices. They track legislation and can tailor messaging to match a lawmaker’s particular committee assignments to maximize your communication’s impact. And their status as spokespeople for the university will give that communication even more attention.
AUTM’s advocacy depends in large measure upon the quality and quantity of the information you and your university can share with your state delegation. By playing the “inside game,” you will increase AUTM’s chances of success with Washington policymakers.