The University of Hawaii has enlisted a familiar face to lobby for federal research dollars in Washington, D.C., under a new contract signed last month.

Jennifer Sabas, the former chief of staff for the late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, will be part of a two-person lobbying team from The National Group that will try to secure funds in fields such as astronomy, ocean sciences and food sustainability.

The $189,000 annual contract also calls for the lobbyists to push for policies that will increase affordability at the university, in particular for immigrants, veterans and under-served minorities.

Students at UH Manoa campus February 2, 2014.

The UH wants more research dollars to bolster some of its top tier programs, including those in astronomy and ocean sciences.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Sabas is well-connected both in Hawaii and Washington, D.C., and was a major force behind Inouye’s wish to see a $5.2 billion rail line built on Oahu.

She told Civil Beat she plans to use her decades of experience working for Inouye to help increase the university’s clout.

“We’re going to focus on those areas where UH is nationally renowned,” Sabas said. “Our goal is actually connecting the dots with the executive branch and, of course, our own delegation.”

Jennifer Sabas headshot

Jennifer Sabas

Submitted photo

She’s currently involved in a number of other endeavors, including rail advocacy through Move Oahu Forward and consulting with the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce to restructure its military affairs department.

Sabas is also working to bring a $50 million center dedicated to her former boss to the UH-Manoa campus.

For nearly two years Hawaii has been without the power and influence of Inouye, who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee.

And while Sabas acknowledged that the age of the earmark has all but disappeared, a Republican Congress won’t make securing funds for a blue state any easier.

Hawaii’s delegation is also light on experience, with U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono the most experienced federal lawmaker in the bunch, having spent about eight years in Washington, D.C.

Sabas said the hope is to focus much of the attention on the agencies that would have the most interest in the research already taking place in Hawaii.

Some of the agencies that will be targeted through lobbying efforts include all branches of the military, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Lynne Waters, a spokeswoman for UH, said that the lobbying contract will not be used to directly influence Hawaii’s delegation, as those discussions are done by university personnel.

Vincent Versage, a founding partner of The National Group, will also be lobbying on behalf of the university. Versage, who is based in Washington, D.C., worked for the late U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga and was a campaign aide for Inouye.

The UH system, which includes 10 campuses, has 53,500 students and brings in more than $400 million each year in research, training contracts and grants.

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