Potential for Agencies to Expand Academic Research

March 2 2023 House Oversight and Reform Committee Hearing

For much of what it does, government is a monopoly, operating without competition, and often compelling citizens to use its services. Government provides its services free at the time of use, which removes the ability to learn from customer’s decisions on price and value. Without these natural feedback mechanisms, the General Assembly and government agencies need other ways to evaluate the results they get for roughly $30 billion in state taxpayer dollars each fiscal year.

Legislative oversight plays an important role, as does the state auditor. Each of these has practical limits in what they can examine, particularly as the scope of government has grown. Oversight staff and auditors must also rely on the ability of state agencies to provide answers they may not have themselves. State agency leadership and staff often have the same questions and no good way to get answers.

Academic research provides another way to learn more about the value of government services. North Carolina is blessed with a vibrant public university system and excellent private universities. Scholars in these institutions can look ahead to future needs and back at past performance. University researchers combine broad subject matter expertise comparable to agency staff and greater specific methodological expertise than oversight, audit, or agency staff.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has had a partially funded mandate from the federal government for twenty-five years to conduct research and development with universities. More recently, the Office of Strategic Partnerships (OSP) in the Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) has tried to bridge the gap between agencies and academia with mixed success since 2019. Federal funds made possible the creation of an Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration in the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which recently launched a sweeping series of university research projects on Covid’s impact on public school students with assistance from OSP and the NC Policy Collaboratory.

On March 2, 2023, the House Oversight and Reform Committee heard testimony on four efforts to connect government programs and academic experts at the Department of Transportation, the Office of State Budget and Management, the NC Collaboratory, and the Department of Public Instruction.

The NC Department of Transportation, the Office of Strategic Partnerships within the Office of State Budget and Management, and the Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration in the Department of Public Instruction use state appropriations and federal funding to conduct academic research to evaluate their agencies and programs. The NC Policy Collaboratory is a resource agencies can partner with to do that research.

NCDOT Research and Development Office
Federal law has long required state transportation departments to dedicate a portion of their funding to research and development a twenty percent state match. In North Carolina, NCDOT’s Research and Development Office contracts around thirty studies per year with roughly $7.5 million in combined state and federal funds and studies dating back to 1997. The Research and Development team refines ideas for projects with subject-matter experts throughout the department. Curtis Bradley, Research Implementation Manager for NCDOT, told the committee that it is hard to measure the return on investment because it could include direct improvements, canceled spending, and systemic changes that affect multiple programs and projects. As long as Congress requires a portion of federal funds go to research, the General Assembly will likely provide the state match.

OSBM Office of Strategic Partnerships
Governor Cooper created the Director of Strategic Partnerships position in 2018. The primary purpose was and continues to be increasing the use of evidence in government decision making. The endeavor has expanded into the North Carolina Office of Strategic Partnerships, housed within OSBM. Funding comes from lapsed salaries and philanthropic grants. Agencies provide submit topics for researchers. It has a small, full-time staff who connect government agencies with researchers and philanthropy. OSP staff “speak the same language” as academic researchers and help agencies translate operational needs into research topics that can provide evidence.

DPI Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration
DPI’s Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration is one place with a core of academic experts. It is funded with about one-tenth of one percent of the $5.5 billion in one-time federal money North Carolina received to help move schooling online and back again to in-person instruction. Director of Research and Evaluation Jeni Corn said they have $6.7 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to conduct a suite of twenty research projects through the Collaboratory. She advocated for a permanent establish a permanent Office of Innovation and Research with a $1.3 million recurring appropriation to examine already implemented reforms and plan for future changes.

North Carolina Collaboratory
The Collaboratory was established in the summer of 2016 by the General Assembly. It distributes state funding to researchers in universities and colleges across the state. The work of the Collaboratory covers many research areas and projects, including hog farms, testing for GenX and other PFAS “forever chemicals,” Covid testing, specific funds for historically minority-serving institutions, and the DPI studies. Executive Director Jeff Warren told the Committee that every dollar his organization receives from the General Assembly goes directly to research because UNC-Chapel Hill covers its operating costs, and it does not allow other universities to charge traditional overhead costs for research projects. Warren also described a fellowship program that placed UNC scholars at the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Conclusion and Options

Contrasting the apparent successes of NCDOT and DPI with the challenges Owen cited in OSP’s work with other agencies, a key factor appears to be having staff in the agency with academic experience. Bradley and NCDOT’s research and development team can translate the organization’s priorities into tractable research questions. Corn and her team provide the same ability at DPI. Most agencies do not have a research team.

Coordination: Owen testified that her office has no direct appropriation and has relied on a combination of lapsed salary and private grants to fund its operations. It also has not received any appropriations specifically for research projects. Despite this, OSP has hired a strong team who provides research assistance to staff in other agencies. The Collaboratory, in contrast, has distributed millions in appropriations for scientific research projects. Although NCDOT’s experience shows that agencies may not need a coordination partner, DPI’s experience shows the value of assistance from OSP and the Collaboratory.

Permanent Funding: DPI has requested recurring funding to make its Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration permanent. Internal staff with academic expertise does seem to have been a key factor in the agency’s ability to improve its post-Covid response. NCDOT provides a precedent for a permanent research section. The General Assembly could fund a similar staff at other agencies or, following the federal example in transportation, require the agency to dedicate a portion of its funding to research staff and projects.

Fellowships: The applied research fellowship program that DEQ and the Collaboratory launched to host scholars, may be a way to bridge the gap in academic research on a temporary basis at some agencies.

The transcript from the hearing can be found here.