Survive or Thrive? Tribal Colleges Fear Federal Research Grants Could Dry Up, Impacting Studies on Climate Change, Toxic Waste and Health Issues

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With local lumber mills shutting down, Robert Kenning, an instructor at a tribal college in western Montana and the tribe s forestry director, came up with an idea.

The usual products generated by forests on the Flathead Indian Reservation were not selling well, the victims of market forces. But what about looking at logging scraps and the smaller trees?

Could this "woody biomass" be turned into chips or pellets for sale as an alternative energy source? Would the forests yield enough to make the effort worthwhile?

Kenning, an instructor of forestry and geographic information systems at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont., landed a $200,000 grant in 2010 from the Department of Agriculture to explore this possibility.

Kenning's research project and others conducted by tribal colleges drew lively interest when presented at the annual First Americans Land-grant Consortium, or FALCON, conference held in Denver in late October.

Some participants, however, wondered whether such research would thrive in coming years--or even survive, for that matter.

The tribal colleges receive research grants from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy and other agencies. But their main source, by far, is the USDA, and those dollars could dry up.

The House of Representatives has approved cutbacks that would, among other things, eliminate USDA research grants to tribal colleges. A Senate appropriations bill retains the research funding. Those and other issues were expected to be taken up in a conference committee some time before a stopgap federal budget expired in mid-November.

In these tough budgetary times, the tribal colleges need to do a better job of publicizing their role and achievements, and next year's FALCON conference will focus on how to do that, officials say.

Training will be offered on putting out press releases and media kits and generating letters to editors, according to Dr. John Phillips, FALCON's executive director.

Some colleges may have communications contacts, but, as a whole, there is no comprehensive or coordinated public relations effort, Phillips said.

The colleges must communicate what they do in a way that's easy to understand, said Tim Grosser, national leader for the tribal college program of the USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

"It's extremely difficult to distill everything you're doing and say what it means," he acknowledged, but it is crucial to do it well.

Elmer Guy, president of Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, N.M., urged faculty members to tell administrators what they were working on and encouraged the colleges to share information.

"It's up to us to communicate our own stories," he said. "We need to take extra time to work with our congressionals," he said. "Our [college] presidents can't do it all for us."

The colleges say the research funding, in particular, is vital to the colleges.

Each year, the USDA gives up to $200,000 individually to seven to 12 projects. The total: $1.8 million a year.

There's no waste here, the colleges say. "Most of our research is meeting a specific need or problem in the community--for instance, diabetes and social problems--that is not being addressed," Phillips said. He said evidence of the research's usefulness helped persuade senators to try to keep the funds.

Some of the schools see their niche as preparing students for the next phase of their lives, not so much on research, Phillips said. But schools should have the chance to reach for that level if they want to, he said.

Kenning, the Montana instructor, has hired two students for his project and expects to hire more over the next two years, the length of the grants. If the USDA money went away, projects in general would employ fewer students, he said. …

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