Working with academics: A primer for U.S. government agencies

02.14.24 | 16 min read | Text by Jordan Dworkin

Collaboration between federal agencies and academic researchers is an important tool for public policy. By facilitating the exchange of knowledge, ideas, and talent, these partnerships can help address pressing societal challenges. But because it is rarely in either party’s job description to conduct outreach and build relationships with the other, many important dynamics are often hidden from view. This primer provides an initial set of questions and topics for agencies to consider when exploring academic partnership.

Why should agencies consider working with academics?

What considerations may arise when working with academics?

Table (Of Contents)
Characteristics of discussed collaborative structures
StructurePrimary needPotential mechanismsStructural complexityLevel of effort
Informal advisingKnowledge >> CapacityAd-hoc engagement; formal consulting agreementLowOccasional work, over the short- to long-term
Study groupsKnowledge > CapacityInformal working group; formal extramural awardModerateOccasional to part-time work, over the short- to medium-term
Collaborative researchCapacity ~= KnowledgeInformal research partnership, formal grant, or cooperative agreement / contractVariablePart-time work, over the medium- to long-term
Short-term placementsCapacity > KnowledgeIPA, OPM Schedule A(r), or expert contract; either ad-hoc or through a formal programModeratePart- to full-time work, over a short- to medium-term
Long-term rotationsCapacity >> KnowledgeIPA, OPM Schedule A(r), or SGE designation; typically through a formal programHighFull-time work, over a medium- to long-term
BOX 1. Key academic considerations
Academic career stages.

Academic faculty progress through different stages of professorship — typically assistant, associate, and full — that affect their research and teaching expectations and opportunities. Assistant professors are tenure-track faculty who need to secure funding, publish papers, and meet the standards for tenure. Associate professors have job security and academic freedom, but also more mentoring and leadership responsibilities; associate professors are typically tenured, though this is not always the case. Full professors are senior faculty who have a high reputation and recognition in their field, but also more demands for service and supervision. The nature of agency-academic collaboration may depend on the seniority of the academic. For example, junior faculty may be more available to work with agencies, but primarily in contexts that will lead to traditional academic outputs; while senior faculty may be more selective, but their academic freedom will allow for less formal and more impact-oriented work.

Soft vs. hard money positions.

Soft money positions are those that depend largely or entirely on external funding sources, typically research grants, to support the salary and expenses of the faculty. Hard money positions are those that are supported by the academic institution’s central funds, typically tied to more explicit (and more expansive) expectations for teaching and service than soft-money positions. Faculty in soft money positions may face more pressure to secure funding for research, while faculty in hard money positions may have more autonomy in their research agenda but more competing academic activities. Federal agencies should be aware of the funding situation of the academic faculty they collaborate with, as it may affect their incentives and expectations for agency engagement.

Sabbatical credits.

A sabbatical is a period of leave from regular academic duties, usually for one or two semesters, that allows faculty to pursue an intensive and unstructured scope of work — this can include research in their own field or others, as well as external engagements or tours of service with non-academic institutions . Faculty accrue sabbatical credits based on their length and type of service at the university, and may apply for a sabbatical once they have enough credits. The amount of salary received during a sabbatical depends on the number of credits and the duration of the leave. Federal agencies may benefit from collaborating with academic faculty who are on sabbatical, as they may have more time and interest to devote to impact-focused work.

Consulting/outside activity limits.

Consulting limits & outside activity limits are policies that regulate the amount of time that academic faculty can spend on professional activities outside their university employment. These policies are intended to prevent conflicts of commitment or interest that may interfere with the faculty’s primary obligations to the university, such as teaching, research, and service, and the specific limits vary by university. Federal agencies may need to consider these limits when engaging academic faculty in ongoing or high-commitment collaborations.

9 vs. 12 month salaries.

Some academic faculty are paid on a 9-month basis, meaning that they receive their annual salary over nine months and have the option to supplement their income with external funding or other activities during the summer months. Other faculty are paid on a 12-month basis, meaning that they receive their annual salary over twelve months and have less flexibility to pursue outside opportunities. Federal agencies may need to consider the salary structure of the academic faculty they work with, as it may affect their availability to engage on projects and the optimal timing with which they can do so.

Advisory relationships consist of an academic providing occasional or periodic guidance to a federal agency on a specific topic or issue, without being formally contracted or compensated. This type of collaboration can be useful for agencies that need access to cutting-edge expertise or perspectives, but do not have a formal deliverable in mind.

Academic considerations

Regulatory & structural considerations

Box 2. Key structural considerations
Regulatory guidance.

Federal agencies and academic institutions are subject to various laws and regulations that affect their research collaboration, and the ownership and use of the research outputs. Key legislation includes the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which governs advisory committees and ensures transparency and accountability; the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which controls the acquisition of supplies and services with appropriated funds; and the Federal Grant and Cooperative Agreement Act (FGCAA), which provides criteria for distinguishing between grants, cooperative agreements, and contracts. Agencies should ensure that collaborations are structured in accordance with these and other laws.

Contracting mechanisms.

Federal agencies may use various contracting mechanisms to engage researchers from non-federal entities in collaborative roles. These mechanisms include the IPA Mobility Program, which allows the temporary assignment of personnel between federal and non-federal organizations; the Experts & Consultants authority, which allows the appointment of qualified experts and consultants to positions that require only intermittent and/or temporary employment; and Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), which allow agencies to enter into collaborative agreements with non-federal partners to conduct research and development projects of mutual interest.

University Office of Sponsored Programs.

Offices of Sponsored Programs are units within universities that provide administrative support and oversight for externally funded research projects. OSPs are responsible for reviewing and approving proposals, negotiating and accepting awards, ensuring compliance with sponsor and university policies and regulations, and managing post-award activities such as reporting, invoicing, and auditing. Federal agencies typically interact with OSPs as the authorized representative of the university in matters related to sponsored research.

Non-disclosure agreements.

When engaging with academics, federal agencies may use NDAs to safeguard sensitive information. Agencies each have their own rules and procedures for using and enforcing NDAs involving their grantees and contractors. These rules and procedures vary, but generally require researchers to sign an NDA outlining rights and obligations relating to classified information, data, and research findings shared during collaborations.

A study group is a type of collaboration where an academic participates in a group of experts convened by a federal agency to conduct analysis or education on a specific topic or issue. The study group may produce a report or hold meetings to present their findings to the agency or other stakeholders. This type of collaboration can be useful for agencies that need to gather evidence or insights from multiple sources and disciplines with expertise relevant to their work.

Academic considerations

Regulatory & structural considerations

Case study

In 2022, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) a grant to create the EAGER: Place-Based Innovation Policy Study Group. This group, led by two economists with expertise in entrepreneurship, innovation, and regional development — Jorge Guzman from Columbia University and Scott Stern from MIT — aimed to provide “timely insight for the NSF Regional Innovation Engines program.” During Fall 2022, the group met regularly with NSF staff to i) provide an assessment of the “state of knowledge” of place-based innovation ecosystems, ii) identify the insights of this research to inform NSF staff on design of their policies, and iii) surface potential means by which to measure and evaluate place-based innovation ecosystems on a rigorous and ongoing basis. Several of the academic leads then completed a paper synthesizing the opportunities and design considerations of the regional innovation engine model, based on the collaborative exploration and insights developed throughout the year. In this case, the study group was structured as a grant, with funding provided to the organizing institution (NBER) for personnel and convening costs. Yet other approaches are possible; for example, NSF recently launched a broader study group with the Institute for Progress, which is structured as a no-cost Other Transaction Authority contract.

Active collaboration covers scenarios in which an academic engages in joint research with a federal agency, either as a co-investigator, a subrecipient, a contractor, or a consultant. This type of collaboration can be useful for agencies that need to leverage the expertise, facilities, data, or networks of academics to conduct research that advances their mission, goals, or priorities.

Academic considerations

Regulatory & structural considerations

Case studies

External collaboration between academic researchers and government agencies has repeatedly proven fruitful for both parties. For example, in May 2020, the Rhode Island Department of Health partnered with researchers at Brown University’s Policy Lab to conduct a randomized controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness of different letter designs in encouraging COVID-19 testing. This study identified design principles that improved uptake of testing by 25–60% without increasing cost, and led to follow-on collaborations between the institutions. The North Carolina Office of Strategic Partnerships provides a prime example of how government agencies can take steps to facilitate these collaborations. The office recently launched the North Carolina Project Portal, which serves as a platform for the agency to share their research needs, and for external partners — including academics — to express interest in collaborating. Researchers are encouraged to contact the relevant project leads, who then assess interested parties on their expertise and capacity, extend an offer for a formal research partnership, and initiate the project.

Short-term placements allow for an academic researcher to work at a federal agency for a limited period of time (typically one year or less), either as a fellow, a scholar, a detailee, or a special government employee. This type of collaboration can be useful for agencies that need to fill temporary gaps in expertise, capacity, or leadership, or to foster cross-sector exchange and learning.

Academic considerations

Regulatory & structural considerations

Case studies

Various programs exist throughout government to facilitate short-term rotations of outside experts into federal agencies and offices. One of the most well-known examples is the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) program, which places scientists and engineers from various disciplines and career stages in federal agencies for one year to apply their scientific knowledge and skills to inform policy making and implementation. The Schedule A(r) hiring authority tends to be well-suited for these kinds of fellowships; it is used, for example, by the Bureau of Economic Analysis to bring on early career fellows through the American Economic Association’s Summer Economics Fellows Program. In some circumstances, outside experts are brought into government “on loan” from their home institution to do a tour of service in a federal office or agency; in these cases, the IPA program can be a useful mechanism. IPAs are used by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in its Rotator Program, which brings outside scientists into the agency to serve as temporary Program Directors and bring cutting-edge knowledge to the agency’s grantmaking and priority-setting. IPA is also used for more ad-hoc talent needs; for example, the Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES) at GSA often uses it to bring in fellows and academic affiliates.

Long-term rotations allow an academic to work at a federal agency for an extended period of time (more than one year), either as a fellow, a scholar, a detailee, or a special government employee. This type of collaboration can be useful for agencies that need to recruit and retain expertise, capacity, or leadership in areas that are critical to their mission, goals, or priorities.

Academic considerations

Regulatory & structural considerations

Case study

One example of a long-term rotation that draws experts from academia into federal agency work is the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) Program Manager (PM) role. ARPA PMs — across DARPA, IARPA, ARPA-E, and now ARPA-H — are responsible for leading high-risk, high-reward research programs, and have considerable autonomy and authority in defining their research vision, selecting research performers, managing their research budget, and overseeing their research outcomes. PMs are typically recruited from academia, industry, or government for a term of three to five years, and are expected to return to their academic institutions or pursue other career opportunities after their term at the agency. PMs coming from academia or nonprofit organizations are often brought on through the IPA mobility program, and some entities also have unique term-limited, hiring authorities for this purpose. PMs can also be hired as full government employees; this mechanism is primarily used for candidates coming from the private sector.