We’ve condensed a recent interview conducted with Dan Filer, CHWA CESU Research Coordinator, to address the questions most frequently posed to CHWA CESU staff.
What is the history of the CESU?
Dan: I believe it was in the late 70s, the park service created this program called “parks studies units” which was essentially individual partnerships that parks would set up with local universities. And the idea started out west. I think like University of Washington was the first parks studies university but I’m not sure of that.
And the idea was that these partnerships would be entered into for the long term, allowing these parks to go directly to these universities to do research and technical assistance and education for them, and to do it at a reduced overhead rate. So, they were able to go to these parks and say look: I’m going to send a couple projects your way over the next couple years. I want to work with your university because you’re close to our park or you have some connection to our park; let’s negotiate an appropriate overhead rate. With the understanding that we will be sending multiple projects to your institution over the coming years
And so that program was very successful for the park service. It eventually spread all across the country. And there’d be situations where multiple parks worked with one institution and would do one agreement and that type of thing. And word somehow got conveyed up to Congress through NPS leadership about this program. And Congress in 2001 created the Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit. Gave it essentially its own authority. And then allowed other federal agencies to join the program.
So today, federal agencies can join simply by writing a letter to the federal council, which is a group of, every federal agency has one representative that sits on this council, and they meet on changes to the overhead rate and new membership. So they can write that letter, and there’s actually a membership fee for federal partners. It’s $1800 per year per per CESU. There’s no fee for non-federal partners to join. Those funds go to support each CESU’s host institution to do things like newsletters, databases, annual meetings, administration, and reporting.
How do new non-federal partners join the CESU?
Dan: In order for them to join, they have to complete an application. It’s generally an 8-10 page document. There is a series of questions that they have to answer. They are required to demonstrate what skills they have, what expertise they have, what are their core programs, that kind of stuff. They have to complete this application that then gets submitted to me, as the CESU Coordinator, and then I turn it over to the host institution, and once a year we do a vote where they are accepted by a vote of their peers. Every CESU fed and nonfed has a vote, and they’re able to cast that vote. Each partner gets one vote. We need a quorum of at least 50 percent of partners for the vote to count, and to approve a new partner, a super majority of at least 2/3 of partners voting must vote in favor.
If they get that, then they become members. We do a modification to the joint venture agreement and add their name and they sign and that’s it. The biggest part of that application is that they have to provide a letter from whoever it is at their institution who has the authority to agree to the 17.5% overhead. In the spirit of the original concept of the CESU, a lower indirect cost recovery rate is justified because: (1) the financial assistance agreements used by CESU should be less burdensome to administer; (2) the partnership between the federal agencies and the universities allows students to gain important research, management, and education experiences; and (3) partnerships that begin with modest sized CESU projects can often lead to larger and more long-term relationships that can be beneficial to both federal and non-federal partners.
How would you describe your role as the CHWA CESU Research Coordinator?
Dan: I’m a matchmaker for research. I don’t do research. I help others do research. I essentially help the federal partners find researchers at partner institutions to do the research that they need completed, or technical assistance that they need completed to help with their mission.
How does the CESU fund projects?
Dan: The CESU is not a pot of money. It’s a vehicle. It’s essentially a tool in a [federal] program manager’s toolbox. It’s another way to obligate funds. So, the agencies who call me, they have the money. “Look I have X amount of dollars to do this type of study or to answer this research question. All I need you to do is find me a partner.” And so that’s where I come in.
How are funds awarded?
Dan: The federal government can award funding three ways: they can do a grant, they can do a contract, or they can do financial assistance (FA). The CESU can only work through FA. Congress gave the CESU authority to the FA bucket for essentially two reasons: when you do financial assistance, you have to have substantial involvement by government and public purpose. Everything we do in CESU meets both criteria. Every CESU project that we complete either results in some type of publication, some type of research that increases the knowledge base the public can access, engages students, providing them with real world experience so they can go on to become the next generation of scientists, or engages with researchers at the those institutions, helping them fulfill their mission for their particular institutions, most of which are land-grant institutions. Everything we do benefits the public directly. That’s why we do financial assistance.
The substantial involvement piece is because the whole idea behind the CESU is that there is constant interaction between a federal partner and a non-federal partner. If you do a contract, it’s “I want you to answer this research question, here’s the money, have it back to me by next October. I’ll talk to you then.” There are many contracts that are done that way. There’s very little interaction. It’s “this is the question. I want you to go solve it.”
Most of what we do in the CESU, though, requires dialogue. There’s a park superintendent who’s not sure about something. They have management decision they need to make, and they have a research question they need answered before they can make that management decision. So, the whole idea is these researchers and students are coming in. They’re doing the work. They’re collecting the data They’re trying to answer this question. They’re staying connected to the park, the superintendent, or the fisheries manager or the other land manager for a different federal agency and they’re communicating with them. They’re providing housing for the student who may be there. They’re providing them with other types of support. They may need a vehicle for the day to go out into the field. And they’re communicating their results to them.
In order to have a functioning relationship where you’re meeting these goals of the CESU, where there’s dialogue and facilitation and these folks are staying fresh with the research and subject matter, there has to be this constant dialogue. You don’t get that through anything else but financial assistance.
What are some of examples of the kind of work or projects best facilitated by the CESU?
Dan: In the very basic design of the network, the whole idea is to provide this vehicle between federal and non-federal partners. A way for a researcher or a program manager in a federal agency to get access to a researcher at an institution. It keeps them fresh on the science, it gives them access to students, that’s how it was designed.
But I really think that today’s CESU in keeping in line with practicing models in science, what the CESU can offer is not just a connection between those two parties, but also a connection between what the federal agencies are doing and what the science is doing- what science is happening at these universities. And I’ll give you an example.
Quantico Marine Corps Base is right next to Prince William Forest Park. One is managed by park service, one is managed by the Department of Defense. And for years, those two managed their resources separately. You may or may not know, but one of the the primary missions of Marine Corps Base Quantico is actually to preserve the Quantico Creek watershed. That’s in their mission. They have 3 core purposes and the first one is actually to do that. It’s not to train Marines and do national defense stuff, it’s to preserve this Quantico Creek watershed. So they have a pretty robust natural resources staff there. And they have an archeologist and others that work there. And so what we’ve recently done through the CESU, because both Quantico and Prince William Forest Park use the CESU to do their research, is we’ve made concerted efforts to align that research across the landscape, not just across this artificial border between these two federal pieces of land. So we’re doing research there with the same researcher.
So we have 2 different CESU agreements that are done with each agency, but we’re working with the same researcher and the same graduate students. We’re sharing that research between the 2 agencies. We have quarterly meetings where that data is being shared, decisions are being made, unilaterally between the commandant of the Marine Corps and also the Superintendent of PRWI. So I think that the CESU as we grow in the network, and as management of these agencies change, here at Department of Interior, there’s this push to move all of us to similar regions, and to start making similar decisions. I think the CESU provides a road map for that to happen more easily.
Another example is a project that we did here [University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science) with Katia Engelhardt and the Washington Office of the NPS. Trying to engage graduate students in looking at the history of science in national parks. So we made a decision to work with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science because they participate in the university system of Maryland program called the MEES program, which stands for Marine Estuarine Environmental Science. It’s a program that’s actually shared amongst multiple institutions within the University System of Maryland (USM). So, you can go to UMBC and join the MEES program, and the faculty member that teaches you could be here at UMCES or at College Park or whatever the case may be. We chose to do this project with a University of Maryland school so we could get access to these students across multiple institutions. So the project had students from 4 or 5 different USM institutions, who worked on the project. But yet we only had to do an agreement with one university. So, that’s another advantage that the CESU can afford you, even if you do a contract, you can’t get access like that. You would have to do five different contracts. So, that’s another benefit of the network.
How does a federal partner that needs a project done approach you?
Dan: So it can happen a couple of ways. Some agencies have the ability to go directly to a cooperator within the CESU network and begin developing a project, while others are required to compete opportunities on grants.gov or through a request for solicitation. I advise that agency on what is appropriate in their specific instance. I get a call from the federal agency who already has a partner in mind. “I’ve worked with so and so at University “X” before and this is a very similar question and I want to work with them again.”
The other types of calls I get are “I have this problem, I have this question, I have this project, I have this pot of money. This is how much I have to work with and I need to find a partner. That’s where we can do a solicitation and ask partners to respond. We simply post on the website; we get it out through our social media and folks can submit responses to us saying, “Yes, I can help you do that and here’s why I’m uniquely qualified to do that.”
Another way could be, due to time constraints, me cold calling, sending emails, going to folks I’ve worked with in the past on similar work, and trying to identify a potential partner.
The last way we’ve now identified and created is the Experts Database.
What is the Experts Database?
Dan: This is a database that we have built at the request of the federal partners and it includes all research disciplines from all nonfederal partners who want to work. They have identified themselves as individuals who want to work in the CESU someday. They’ve put their profile in. It has their up-to-date CV, and it’s searchable. In addition to myself using that database, we’re also directing federal partners to use it, as well, to help find partners before they even talk to me.
Whenever you create your profile, if you have photo, an up-to-date CV, and you’ve got a brief description of yourself, you can do a profile in like 7-10 minutes. Whenever you type in something to search, it will search everything in the narrative you write but also in the CV. So if you’ve got something in your CV, it will find it. And that’s the beauty of this database.
You can search by specialty or topic, such as: -if you’re looking for an ecologist, if you’re looking for someone to do nitrogen, if you’re looking for an archaeologist- you can simply type those words in and everyone who has that in their profile or their CV will pop up. So you can search it that way. You can also filter by state because some agencies want to work- like for example, for whatever reason, this has been the case since I’ve been in this position, national parks in Virginia only want to work with Virginia institutions. I don’t know why. It’s like their thing, so you can filter by state. You can filter by institution. If you only want to find researchers that are members of Stroud Water Research Center, you can just type in Stroud and see only folks from Stroud. You can do advanced searchers where I want to work with someone at Stroud who specializes in water ecology. I can type that in. Click Stroud, and it will give me only people who match both criteria.
The Experts Database is meant to be the leveling of the playing field. When I visit institutions and talk to researchers who are unsuccessful in getting work in the CESU or getting a project, I tell them, “Are you in the database?” Because that’s where I’m going and that’s where we’re directing the federal partners to go. If they are looking for a partner, and they are unsure who they want to work with, this database is a way of getting you name out there. We want it to be in there because it’s better for all parties concerned, but it’s also a way for folks to get engaged who haven’t prior.
For non-federal partners, what is the secret to getting a CESU project?
Dan: There is no secret unfortunately. If you have contacts in federal agencies, cultivate those contacts. Let them know they’re a member of the CESU. If they don’t know what the CESU is, call me. I’m happy to explain to them what it is, how it works, and what paperwork they need to do to do a CESU project. Just get your name out there as much as you can. Every year I find out about a new way a project happened that I never thought of. Agencies calling partners directly. There is no single, magical path that will get you a project. It happens organically. Getting your name in the Experts Database and following CHWA CESU on Twitter to see the opportunities that are coming out. That’s the best way to stay involved.
What does the CHWA CESU have to do with the Chesapeake Bay?
Dan: That’s actually a great question. Because people think when they hear it that all the work we do is in the bay and that’s why we exist. Because there are so many organizations out there that are focused on the Chesapeake Bay, that have the Chesapeake Bay name. We do projects in the Bay: the Department of Defense does projects in the Bay through the CESU and the Chesapeake Bay Office of the NPS has done CESU work. But the mission of our CESU is not centered exclusively on the Bay. Actually [it’s] more terrestrial. And in fact, if you look at the CESU national map, the CESU that we work within, isn’t even the same as the actual geographical border of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. So it’s a little misleading, to be honest.
For a CW CESU project to happen, both the fed and the non-fed have to be a member of the CESU. They don’t have to be geographically located in it, they just have to be members. So a USGS or Fish and Wildlife Service office in California could do a project with University of Maryland, and we would consider that CW CESU project because they’re both members. Even though Maryland may be doing the work out in California.
We’ve done projects in Alaska for example, we have done projects in the Midwest, we’ve done projects in Florida, and they’ve all been facilitated through this CESU. That said, most of our projects occur within the Mid-Atlantic States region, which roughly overlaps with the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and our mission is mainly to serve our federal and non-federal partners within the region.