NAHANT — A rocky bluff overlooking Massachusetts Bay has had many lives: a US senator’s estate, a World War II bunker, a Cold War missile base. Now, Northeastern University is gambling that it can turn the location into a research magnet for tens of millions in federal dollars to study climate change.
Studying the impact of global warming on — in Washington parlance — “urban coastal sustainability” has become one of the hottest sources of federal dollars, and Northeastern officials believe its modest marine science center in Nahant can win up to $25 million a year in US research grants and boost the university’s profile in the process.
“This is a no-brainer for us. We’re positioning ourselves aggressively. We need the money to survive,” said J. Murray Gibson, dean of Northeastern’s College of Science.
Northeastern’s pursuit of the research money provides a case study of how universities are competing for federal dollars — especially smaller schools tired of living in the shadows of research powerhouses like Harvard and MIT.
Winning large federal grants can help a university build its brand. Also at stake: jobs and a construction project, as Northeastern plans a $50 million research building on its Nahant campus.
Some universities used to rely heavily on members of Congress “earmarking” money for research and other projects. After Congress banned earmarks in 2011 amid criticism that they rewarded political clout, not merit, a new strategy has emerged. With the help of a team of consultants and lobbyists, university officials have urged Congress to increase research funding for certain key agencies, then lobby the agencies that award the cash.
The Obama administration has made coastal sustainability research a priority following natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged much of the East Coast in 2012. Massachusetts is among many coastal states losing an increasing amount of land to erosion.
As a result, more than a half-dozen new pots of federal money are being eyed by Northeastern.
The university believes that gaining even a portion of research funds could be transformative. President Obama last month committed $1 billion for national disaster resilience. The Department of Interior recently awarded $100 million in grants for Atlantic coast communities affected by Sandy. And, following input from Northeastern scientists and others, the National Science Foundation is dedicating $670 million toward programs related to coastal sustainability and climate change research.
Northeastern today brings in just $5.2 million in funding for coastal sustainability research, out of its $110 million annual federal research portfolio.
The university’s strategy has its risks, as Northeastern learned last month when it did not receive a $1.2 million coastal resiliency grant from the Department of Interior to analyze the state’s tide gates that protect wetlands and other property from flooding. Half of the $100 million available went to projects in New York and New Jersey, the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy.
“That was unfortunate, but it was a first step for us,” Gibson said. “We just have to marshal on and put ourselves in a good position to be successful.”
He said that with earmarks going away, “there’s been a resurgence of scientists going down to the agencies to help them decide where money should be going. We’re becoming an increasingly important part of the political fabric in Washington.”
Northeastern’s Marine Science Center, opened in 1967 after the government offered to donate the land to a local university, is spread over 23 pristine acres on East Point in Nahant at the entrance to the Boston Harbor, about 20 miles from the university’s main Boston campus.
After developing some initial international acclaim, the lab fell into a sleepy state — until recently.
Since 2010, the number of faculty at the center jumped from five to 13, and the university plans on hiring a dozen more.
“We decided to focus on urban [coastal] sustainability because we know that with environmental changes, we are going to face a situation where our cities are going to be impacted by water in many ways,” said Joseph Aoun, Northeastern president, who makes twice-monthly trips to Washington on behalf of the university. “We built our faculty along these lines. Now we’re poised to go to Washington because our research is relevant and we are leaders in this field.”
For decades, government relations at Northeastern meant schmoozing with the mayor of Boston or making a trip to the State House. Three years ago, the university began stepping up its Washington presence and retained Lewis-Burke Associates, a Washington firm specializing in helping research universities influence federal policy, including a new focus on climate and marine sciences.
In 2013, Northeastern spent $520,000 on lobbying, compared to $290,000 in 2010.
“It used to be you’d work something out with Ted Kennedy and you’d be fine,” said Mike Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs, referring to the earmarks of yesteryear doled out by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. “Now we are working a lot more directly with agencies.”
The new environment calls for universities to focus more on understanding and shaping how federal agencies award grants, said April Burke, president and founder of Lewis-Burke Associates, who also works with Tufts and Boston University.
That means more Northeastern scientists are serving on agency advisory panels, visiting Washington to speak to members of Congress about the importance of marine science research, and inviting them to Nahant.
“We’re invested in having Northeastern be a credible voice on issues at federal agencies and consulting with congressional committees,” Burke said.
Universities can help influence, on the front end, what types of projects to fund by building relationships with individual program officers at various agencies, said Alan J. Stone, a government relations consultant for Northeastern who used to help Harvard and Columbia universities with their Washington strategies.
The federal grants are awarded through a competitive peer-reviewed process, but universities can sway the agency program officers, who make the final decisions, by convincing them that a particular school has the best researchers to carry out a particular kind of project, Stone said.
“You have to find more subtle ways to be a presence,” Stone said.
The subtle pressure is also applied in Congress. It doesn’t hurt for a senator to stand up on the Senate floor and proclaim a university’s track record in a particular area around the time agencies are awarding grants, Stone said — or have a senator or representative sitting on a committee overseeing appropriations for a particular agency.
Universities still get members of Congress to write language into appropriations bills that best positions them for funding, without being as blatant as an earmark.
“You can’t have an earmark, but there’s a way to work with the appropriations committee to create an earmark that’s not an earmark,” said Geoffrey Trussell, director of the Northeastern Marine Science Center.
Northeastern officials met with Senator Edward Markey’s staff in January about establishing a research program on urban coastal sustainability issues.
In April, the Massachusetts Democrat, in his appropriations request to the Commerce Justice and Science subcommittee leaders, called on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agency to use $60 million to establish a research and infrastructure program on urban coastal sustainability, with priority funding for New England and the Northeast.
The bill is still in the works and Northeastern hopes it will eventually receive some of the money.
“This is a delegation effort,” Markey said in an interview. “Massachusetts actually loses 65 acres every single year to rising sea levels. That’s 45 football fields. We know how central this is to Massachusetts’ ability to respond to the rising seas and the intensifying storms.”