Thursday, March 27, 2014

A close look at federal science policy: Senator Dick Durbin and the American Cures Act

BSD Postdocs with Senator Dick Durbin on March 24, 2014.

By Kyle Dolan, Ph.D., PDA Public Affairs Committee

In a speech Monday at UIC College of Medicine, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) outlined the American Cures Act, a plan to secure and grow federal funding for biomedical research. Four members of the BSD Postdoctoral Association attended his speech and later met with Senator Durbin to discuss the personal effects of stagnant science budgets. For these postdocs, it was an opportunity to witness the workings of US science policy up close.

Federal funds for scientific research currently come out of a discretionary spending fund that Congress and the White House must split up every year for a large group of programs. Unlike legally mandated spending, such as for Social Security, discretionary spending for a program can vary year to year. Thirty years ago, scientific research accounted for 1.3% of the federal budget. Today, it represents 0.8% of the budget. Furthermore, as Senator Durbin pointed out, the discretionary spending pool must fund not only the NIH and other science agencies, but also popular social programs such as Head Start.

The solution proposed by Durbin in the American Cures Act is to create legally mandated biomedical research funding. A pool of money would be set aside each year to fund the research missions of the NIH, CDC, Department of Defense, and VA. The size of the pool would grow at a rate of five percent above inflation over ten years, providing up to $150 billion for these programs. Durbin suggested that a new federal tax on tobacco products would help to fund the Act, though he stipulated that the envisioned revenues from such a tax would pay for only half of the foreseen outlays. The American Cures Act fund would also be protected from sequestration in the event of future budget crises, such as the one this past year which shut down the NIH for weeks.

During the speech, which was attended by an audience of nearly 100 scientists, administrators, and other guests, Durbin pointed out that promoting discovery and innovation has been a government priority dating back to the earliest days of the American republic. He cited Washington’s creation of the Patent Office and the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Turning to modern examples of American scientific achievement, Durbin highlighted the work of Chicago-based researchers whose work had improved the quality of life for people suffering from cancer and other ailments, including The University of Chicago’s own Janet Rowley. He also talked about how federal research had led to the creation of improved prosthetic devices for amputees. Over and over, Durbin connected the American research enterprise with economic growth and enhanced quality of life for all people. Because of this connection, he said, the problem of securing stable funding for biomedical research was not a partisan problem, but rather “an American problem”, and one that he hoped his Republican colleagues in Congress would also stand behind.

Following the speech, members of the BSD Postdoctoral Association met Senator Durbin for a private conversation. We expressed our gratitude for his support of science and explained how the funding climate weighed on current postdocs’ prospects for research jobs. Here are some reflections on the speech and on meeting Senator Durbin from those who were there:

“Attending Senator Durbin's speech and meeting him afterwards inspired us all. On the walk back to the car we were all discussing who we could contact to help generate more support for the America Cures Act. It was a great reminder that we don't work in a vacuum and if we want better funding security, we need to advocate for it.” –Beth Russell, Ph.D., PDA Public Affairs Committee Co-Chair

“I attended to get a better idea of how these policy level decisions are being made that have such broad implications, both for our funding access as individual researchers, and for the direction of our country.  I was struck by Senator Durbin's excellent communication skills. He inspired his audience during his speech. Later, when talking with us personally, he displayed great poise and empathy for the postdoc plight.  His speech was heavy on past success, and the desire to pay it forward to address real needs by continued investment.  I believe that he chose good examples of not only biomedical breakthroughs (e.g. Janet Rowley's 'oh wow' moment) but also for VA and other research that will also be funded by this bill. Perhaps most importantly, he seems to have a potentially feasible roadmap towards getting the American Cures Act passed (i.e. using tobacco money to pay half). This seems to be a realistic way to help reverse our steady decline in biomedical research funding.” –Sean McConnell, Ph.D., PDA Co-President

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