Major research institutions face critical public policy issues almost every day of the year. Funding for student financial aid, support for research, and regulatory requirements are just three of the almost constant issues that need to be dealt with.
Then come such hot-button topics as stem cell research, which can’t be anticipated in advance.
Good thing the University has someone like Pam Lokken to keep track of all — yes, all — of these issues on a daily basis.
As director of government and community relations at the University, Lokken finds herself wearing different hats all the time.
“I oversee the University’s government and community relations,” Lokken said. “That translates into federal relations, state relations, local governmental relations, community relations and conversations with individual neighbors.
“In leading the university’s federal advocacy efforts, I work closely with the Missouri congressional delegation, with research agencies in Washington, D.C., and with a variety of national associations.”
These include the heavy hitters of higher education in the United States. Such groups as the Association of American Universities (AAU), which includes the top 62 research intensive universities in North America, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the American Council on Education.
Oh, and don’t forget the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the departments of Defense and Energy, and NASA.
“The things that my office deals with are pretty clear-cut,” Lokken says. “It’s a constantly changing political environment, but there are always core things that we want to nurture and protect. Federal funding for student financial aid is core for Washington University. To make us accessible and affordable for students and families is very important.
“Another critical set of issues that I watch over is federal research funding. NIH and NSF are the key agencies supporting universty-based research. Last year, more than $450 million flowed to the University via the excellent research conducted by the faculty here.
“So I am in constant contact with people at those agencies and with the congressional delegation making the case for the importance of our nation investing in research and higher education.”
And this just scratches the surface. We haven’t even gotten into the regulatory issues, or the issues at the state or community level — issues that are much the same as at the federal level, just with different stakes.
“What amazes me is her incredible grasp of a wide range of the most complicated issues that are pressing higher education, particularly given the history, prominence and research intensity of Washington University,” said Geoff Grant, staff director for the Research Business Models Subcommittee in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C. and a former NIH colleague.
“Pam is typically very involved on behalf of Washington University on matters that deal with student aid, research funding, research compliance topics, including the protection of human participants and animal subjects in research, the pending Higher Education Act, tax-exempt bond issues, the list just goes on and on.
“For someone like myself, who is just responsible for one or two of those sectors, I know that kind of familiarity or knowledge can be incredibly daunting. Yet Pam is always an expert in all facets and nuances of the issues and is tuned into the latest current events and implications of decisions that could affect all of higher education,” Grant added.
Of particular concern are the regulatory issues.
According to Lokken, there is an immense regulatory regime built around higher education and research — especially biomedical research with concerns ranging anywhere from conflict of interest issues to research integrity issues to human subject protection issues.
And there are extensive complex issues associated with Medicare and Medicaid.
“Most people don’t know that the training of our next generation of physicians is supported through the Medicare program,” Lokken said. “Nor do they realize the importance of physician reimbursement levels in providing health care to our nation’s neediest and most vulnerable.”
The current hot-button topic is stem cell research, and again, Lokken finds herself advocating on behalf of the University almost daily.
“Every once in a while there is an issue that takes us by surprise,” she said. “We didn’t foresee the magnitude of the debate over stem cell research. We cannot allow an outright ban on a particular type of research that is essential to finding new ways to conquer disease and protect life.
“For an institution that prides itself on being one of the top research institutions in the country, such a ban is untenable.”
Diplomacy is key when discussing these issues — through changes in government policies, political parties and priorities, one needs to maintain a sense of balance and nonpartisanship to effectively communicate.
“She is a wonderful contributor to everything we are doing,” said AAU President Nils Hasselmo. “She is one of the truly knowledgeable people in the field. What makes her good at what she does is her intelligence, mature judgment and thoughtfulness.
“To successfully do her job takes the intellectual agility that she has, and it requires considerable personal skills because she’s working with colleges, with members of Congress and their staffs.
Lokken, a Wisconsin native, came to the University in 1991 after several years at NIH. Bob Blackburn, who headed government and community relations for many years, was planning to retire.
He called Lokken and gauged her interest in coming to the University, which, after discussing the situation, turned out to be pretty high.
She first came as assistant director, a position she held for two years as Blackburn mentored her in the ways of the job and the depth, breadth and complexity of Washington University.
Then, Lokken took over as director when Blackburn retired.
The key to her job: “First and foremost, we inform and communicate. The best thing to do to somebody who works in government relations is to make sure you have strong system of commnication. You can’t communicate enough with people in the world.”
On where she saw herself years ago: “I had always pictured myself as a person who would still be in D.C. someplace, whether working with Congress or in a federal agency or some other part of Washington in the policy environment. That’s my love, public policy. What I feel fortunate about here is that the public policies which I really care about the most — higher education, health care, research — are the things I get to do every day, so that continues to keep me energized and very engaged in this job. It never gets old.”
“It has been a very natural progression, because research is important to a university like ours,” Lokken said. “So when I arrived, I felt well-prepared for at least a portion of my job, but there was a whole other part that I had no exposure to — higher education issues.
“Biomedical research and university-based research were both areas I felt I had a good grip on, but higher ed issues were new to me. It both made it exciting and energizing to come here, but it was also the challenge. ”
And that’s where the rest of her office comes in. It’s a small office, just a few people. But Rose Windmiller handles similar issues at the state level, and Leah Merrifield manages the local-level issues.
A medical public policy specialist will soon join the office.
“Mostly we inform people about what’s important to the University and educate them about our everyday contributions to the nation, our state, and our local community,” Lokken said of her office. “The state does not send dollars our way, but it is in a position of regulating us on a wide range of issues. Right now, Rose is our point person in Jefferson City in the struggle to protect stem cell research.
The other piece that Windmiller oversees is local governmental relations, and the University is somewhat unique in that it sits in four separate political jurisdictions locally.
That connection then naturally flows to Merrifield and her job as director of community relations, because the conversations with the community are tied to neighborhood associations, community groups and individual citizens living near the University campuses.
Merrifield has put together a WUSTL Neighbors’ Council of leading citizens from the different political jurisdictions. The interests of the University and community overlap, and there are some tensions at times — the group is a way of bringing community members together.
“The purpose of the group is to have a regular forum where we can talk,” Lokken said.
Regardless of whether it’s at the federal, state or community level, the objective is the same — making the University’s voice heard, while listening carefully to what is being said to us.
“The University knows that government relations has two hats to wear — one is advocacy specifically related to our institutional priorities and interests, but the other is carrying the banner for the community,” Lokken said, “and I believe WUSTL is a very strong community citizen.”
“This is an exciting and challenging time to be doing his kind of work. It’s clear that many of the University’s core activities are going to enter challenging times in terms of funding, particularly from the federal government. It will test us all and the strong institutions, like Washington University, will emerge even stronger.”