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Headshot of Jodey Arrington

Jodey Arrington (R–TX)

Mark Rogers

Special series: Meet new members of Congress with connections to research, and a science ally who is leaving

Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress in last month’s election. But that doesn’t mean the 115th Congress that convenes on 3 January 2017 is identical to its predecessor.

Fifty-six new members of the House of Representatives will take their seats (42 Republicans and 14 Democrats) along with four new Senators (three Democrats and one Republican). Although none has a science Ph.D., a few have significant ties to the research community.

This week, ScienceInsider is profiling three new members of the House with research connections, and one friend of science who is leaving.

Today: Representative Jodey Arrington (R–TX), who directed commercial activity at a major university, expanding its research capacity

Wednesday: Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D–IL), who ran a university startup begun by an academic with an entrepreneurial bent

Thursday: Representative Ro Khanna (D–CA), who defeated fellow Democratic Representative Mike Honda in the race to represent a district in the heart of Silicon Valley

Friday: Honda discusses what he learned in his 16 years in Congress.

Arrington knows university tech transfer

Jodey Arrington believes that the federal government has grown too large and intrusive and that Congress must curb spending. That philosophy is a good fit for his rural west Texas district, where agriculture is king and the residents are dark red on the political spectrum. (According to one tip sheet, TX–17 is the third most Republican district in the state and ranks eighth in the country.)

But as a former vice chancellor for research and commercialization at Texas Tech University (TTU) in Lubbock, the district’s largest employer, Arrington also thinks that the government’s support of basic academic research is essential to train a globally competitive U.S. workforce and to fuel economic development. And he’s not afraid to make the case.

“I could go on and on about the benefits of investing in research,” Arrington said during a debate last spring hosted by the university’s student Republican club. His opponent, Lubbock Mayor Glen Robertson, had just accused the federal government of “wasting billions of dollars in research projects that will never affect anybody in this room” and had said that “the most important thing” he could do for TTU would be “to get the federal government out of the university’s business.”

The 44-year-old Arrington, a career public servant, doesn’t see it that way. “Research is the seed corn for an innovation economy, and ending federal investment in R&D would be a disaster for Texas Tech and for the country,” he told the audience. “We took the university’s $200 million in R&D and converted it to spinoffs and startups, allowing our best and brightest to stay here and be part of a new technology sector we called Silicon Prairie. I’m very proud of what we did.”

Inspired by Reagan

Arrington defeated Robertson in a May runoff after losing to him in the first round of the Republican primary. In November, he captured 85% of the votes in a contest in which Democrats didn’t even field a candidate. It was his first run for Congress, after a failed attempt at a state senate seat in 2014, but he’s no stranger to Washington, D.C.

Born and raised in west Texas, Arrington majored in political science at TTU, where he later earned a master’s degree in public policy. “Ronald Reagan turned the switch for me, and I never really veered from that path,” says Arrington, who owes his political career to several influential mentors.

He parlayed a low-level job in the late 1990s for then-Governor George W. Bush into a job with his administration, becoming chief of staff in 2001 to Donald Powell, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and one of the new president’s key advisers. After Hurricane Katrina, Powell agreed to manage the recovery effort and Arrington went with him as his top deputy.

In 2007 he returned to Texas to become chief of staff to Kent Hance, a former Democrat-turned-Republican congressman from west Texas who had become chancellor of the TTU system. One of Hance’s priorities was to turn TTU—a distant third in the state behind the University of Texas in Austin, and Texas A&M University in research performed by public institutions—into a national powerhouse. He regarded a beefed commercialization effort as a vital cog in that machine, and he asked Arrington to take the reins.

“We were adequate and I wanted excellence,” says Hance, who retired as chancellor in 2014 and now practices law in Austin. “We had not encouraged professors to do more research, and to try to commercialize what they had done.”

Despite never having been a faculty member and lacking a Ph.D., Arrington says he was effective in getting across that message by drawing on his previous government experience. “People say that the politics at a university are the worst, and I think my skills and political instincts allowed me to be effective,” he says. “Instead of civil service protections, you have tenure. Both are bureaucracies, and the challenge is getting everyone to work together.”

Under Arrington, the university’s level of sponsored research more than doubled, topping $200 million in 2014. Not all of that was from the federal government; state grants helped the university create a center on renewable energy research and a facility to test new technologies to improve the electrical grid. But federal grants were the crème de la crème, Arrington acknowledges. “”In higher education there’s a premium on peer-reviewed federal grants,” he says. “And I can understand that. The peer-review process gives you credibility because you are competing against the best universities in the country.”

Under Hance, the university modified its tenure and promotion policies to reward patenting and entrepreneurial activity along with research grants, publications, and teaching. “I think a university is kidding itself if it wants to be excellent in that area and doesn’t include tech transfer and commercialization in its incentives for faculty.”

That message has been heard, agrees one veteran faculty member who asked to remain anonymous. But the interaction isn’t flawless. “They don’t always have people with the right knowledge,” she says. “And it’s not enough to just ask faculty what they have that can be commercialized. You need innovation before commercialization.”

Reaching out

Realizing that he had a lot to learn, Arrington reached out to universities with a proven track record of turning discoveries into commercially successful products and companies. One contact he made was Russell Brewer, a TTU alum who is now associate vice president for sponsored research at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. TTU was “doing OK in crop science and a few other areas, but they really needed a bigger research infrastructure to make the impact they wanted,” Brewer says. “And I give them credit for recognizing that.”

Arrington wanted to learn what it would take for TTU to run with the big dogs, Brewer says. And Arrington says one important lesson he absorbed is that universities need to operate “at the speed of business.” Another is to be less greedy in negotiating with potential licensees and commercial partners. “I think we drive too hard a bargain. It’s better to take a little of a lot rather than to get a lot of nothing,” he says.

Arrington says the nation’s $19 trillion national debt can’t be erased by cutting the nation’s discretionary budgets, which include most science spending. “What’s driving up our debt is not research, or agricultural supports, or infrastructure,” he says. “It’s the entitlement programs. And we need to reform those debt drivers because we are squeezing every ounce of blood out of the discretionary spending turnip.”

Still, he’s not prepared to give university researchers a blank check. “We need a clear picture of our national goals. And maybe we don’t need to invest in R&D so broadly. I think national security is probably at the top of my list. And energy independence is important, along with food security. I think the social sciences are also important. But it needs to be peer-reviewed research, and we must explain its value to the public.”

Charting his future role in Congress, Arrington says financial services and agriculture are two committees that interest him. “And I’d add science to that list,” he says, noting that he’s had conversations with Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chairman of the House science committee and a fellow Lone Star State resident from San Antonio. Wherever he lands, Arrington will be one of the most knowledgeable members on issues relating to federal support for university research and how to take that research to the market.