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As many leading US business schools look to engage more actively with public policy issues, how important is it for them to have a physical presence in Washington?

For John Mayo, executive director of the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy, there is no doubt. “Physical proximity to policy makers, as we have, is essential for a successful continuity of dialogue,” he says.

The centre, housed in the McDonough School of Business, not only brings the policy community to campus – a short taxi ride from Capitol Hill – but also takes Georgetown academics to them. “Policy makers can just call [us] up and we can meet for coffee minutes later,” says Prof Mayo.

Leading faculty members present their research before congressional staff in regular “Georgetown on the Hill” seminars, held on Capitol Hill. The lunchtime sessions, which showcase the policy relevance of an academic’s work, are hosted in congressional offices or in the Capitol building. “Congressional staffers are faced with mountains of information from lobbyists,” says Prof Mayo. “There is real demand for solid academic research.”

The enthusiasm of legislators to engage with academia since the onset of the financial crisis has driven the success of the University of Maryland’s Center for Financial Policy, according to its director, Lemma Senbet.

The centre, part of the Smith School of Business on the outskirts of Washington, was established in 2009 in response to the economic crisis. To facilitate debate on key issues relating to financial policy, it has forged relationships with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, among other institutions. “While our centre’s advantage is not only based on location,” says Prof Senbet, “being in DC has certainly given us more leverage.”

In April, the centre co-hosted a “policy roundtable” with the IMF, involving international policy makers, regulators, business leaders and academics – as well as Christine Lagarde, IMF managing director – to discuss the future of financial regulation. “To have influence on policy matters, face-to-face interaction is vital,” says Anand Anandalingham, dean of the Smith School.

This conclusion is not, however, held unanimously. Bhaskar Chakravorti, executive director of the Institute for Business in the Global Context at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, says that a Boston location has inhibited the influence of neither the Fletcher school nor its Harvard neighbour. “Since its establishment, the Fletcher School has had an enormous amount of influence within the corridors of power.”

Further north, in upstate New Hampshire, Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business is arguably much further compromised by its remote location. “There are challenges related to being quite isolated, but our physical location is no inhibition to bringing leaders to campus,” says Paul Danos, the school’s dean, who emphasises the virtues of Tuck as an attractive retreat for Washington’s leaders to visit.

As part of the school’s new Center for Global Business and Government, a number of high-level speakers – including Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank, and Cynthia Carroll, recently departed chief executive of Anglo American – are visiting the campus. The centre’s faculty director, Matthew Slaughter, who retains strong bipartisan connections with policy makers, nonetheless does not rule out the possibility of a future presence in DC.

The Wharton Public Policy Initiative, launched this September by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, places great significance on establishing a physical presence in the nation’s capital. While located in Philadelphia – only an hour and a half by train from Washington – the school is to hire an executive director and supporting staff as representatives on Capitol Hill.

According to the initiative’s faculty director, Mark Duggan, this full-time bridge between the Wharton school and Washington will ensure that faculty research can be supplied to policy makers and inform the formulation of government decisions. Optimistic for the initiative’s success, Prof Duggan says that he expects other leading schools to follow the Wharton model.

Reflecting on the potential for competition from incoming schools, Georgetown’s Prof Mayo is positive. “I would be delighted for other schools to set up shop [here in Washington] . . . it can only benefit the debates taking place on Capitol Hill.”

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