By: Megan Nortrup, National Park Service
“I’m a matchmaker for research,” says Danny Filer over the phone when I ask him how he describes his job. “A lot of folks think I do research, but I don’t. I help others do research.”
That’s probably why the energetic Filer is always on the go. Zipping over from his office at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Frostburg, Maryland to meet with NPS staff in the National Capital Area, then over to a University in Virginia, followed by a phone call with officials at Department of Defense. He’s making connections all the time.
“I essentially help federal partners find researchers at partner institutions to do needed research or technical assistance that helps them achieve their mission” he sums up.
Danny Filer is Research Coordinator for the Chesapeake Watershed Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (CW CESU). An organization that in the three years he’s been running it, has doubled its number of partner institutions, with, he says, “more room to grow.”
What’s a CESU?
The whole idea of a CESU (a Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit; there are 17 across the nation) is to provide a vehicle between federal and non-federal partners. A way for someone in a federal agency to get access to a researcher at an institution. It keeps the feds fresh on the science, and it gives them access to students for internships. In exchange, research institutions (mostly universities), get the chance to work with feds, especially park service, and the opportunity to compete for project dollars, and great internship opportunities for their students.
The biggest misconception about the CESU Filer says is that, “the CESU doesn’t actually have any funding. Federal agencies provide the funding. The CESU is not a pot of money, it’s a vehicle. A tool in a program manager’s toolbox.”
Filer’s work on behalf of the CESU seems tireless. He says, “Every week I talk with either someone in the federal government or someone outside of it who doesn’t know that the CESU exists and that they’re already a member. Last week, I had a call from someone at Department of Interior who didn’t know they could do an agreement through the CESU to work with a researcher in the US Virgin Islands. And at the same time, I’ll meet a researcher who doesn’t know that the CESU exists and that they can respond to calls from federal agencies for research proposals.”
Two CESU Projects: Protecting a Watershed & Promoting the National Park Role in Science History
A recent CESU project matched Dr. Katia Engelhardt with the NPS Washington Office on a project to engage graduate students in looking at the history of science in national parks and create a series of outreach articles. In part, the park service selected Engelhardt because she teaches in a Marine Estuarine Education Science program that is shared across multiple University of Maryland institutions. This provided park service with access to students in several different schools while only having to do one agreement with one university.
Another CESU project comes from Quantico Marine Corps Base, right next door to Prince William Forest Park. For years, both the park and Quantico managed their resources separately even though both have in their core mission the goal of preserving the Quantico Creek watershed.
Because both are CESU members, the CESU recently made concerted efforts to align research across the two areas so that now, the same researcher and the same graduate students are working in both places. And the CESU is making sure that research is shared between the two agencies through quarterly decision-making meetings involving the commandant of the Marine Corps and the Superintendent of Prince William.
The CESUs has two kinds of partners. Federal agency partners like NPS, USGS, and NOAA, and non-federal, research institution or university partners like Howard University, Penn State, and Virginia Tech.
Federal agencies can join the CESU simply by writing a letter to the federal council and paying a membership fee of $1800 per year.
Non-federal research institution partners can join for free. They just complete an application demonstrating the skills and expertise their staff have, and describing their core programs. They also have to agree to the CESU’s 17.5% overhead rate.
“The CW CESU has a pretty impressive roster of over 50 research institution partners” says Filer. “They run the gamut from research institutions, teaching institutions, community colleges, and non-profits.”
Arranging Projects for Federal Partners
Almost half of the projects that I work on involve a federal agency who already has a partner in mind. The other half, the agency may say, “I have this problem, I have this question, or I have this project. I have this much to work with and I need to find a partner. That’s where the CESU can do a solicitation and ask research partners to respond” says Filer.
That’s also where the Experts Database comes in. It’s a database that includes profiles of researchers of all disciplines from nonfederal research institution partners. They’re all individuals who want to work with the CESU. The profiles have an up-to-date curriculum vitae, and they’re searchable by discipline, state, or institution.
Projects for Research Institution Partners
There is no one path to getting a project for research institutions. But things that help are setting up a profile in the Experts Database, responding to calls for research proposals, and following CW CESU on Twitter to see the latest opportunities.
Filer says, “We also encourage non-federal partners to come to the CW CESU annual meeting. We talk about success stories, research, program highlights. It’s a great opportunity to network and meet other people.”
The CESU only works through financial assistance. No grants or contracts. And that requires dialogue. The whole idea is that researchers and students are not just doing work, they’re building a relationship that benefits both parties.
We Reach Beyond the Chesapeake Bay
“To be honest, our name—the Chesapeake Watershed CESU—is a little misleading” says Filer. Members of the CESU don’t have to be geographically located in the bay. A CW CESU project can connect a federal agency office in California with a CW CESU partner institution, even though the work occurs out in California. (I guess they’re okay with long-distance relationships.)
Looking to Connect?
Filer says that, aside from matching experts in the federal government with academia, the most rewarding part of his job is doing work that benefits taxpayers while helping science be better applied on our nation’s federal lands.
If you aren’t already involved with the CESU and you want to be, visit the CW CESU website or contact Danny Filer at 301-689-7108 to learn more.