Monday, October 6, 2014

Scientists on Capitol Hill -- by Elizabeth Little, PhD

On Tuesday September 9th, I joined 19 other young scientists to take over Washington, D.C. as part of Hill Day, sponsored by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).  Twice a year, ASBMB hosts this jam-packed day of meetings to communicate the needs of the science community to members of the United States Congress.  Chiefly, we were putting out the call to increase NIH funding for Fiscal Year 2015 to $32 billion (and $7.2 billion for NSF).  These numbers may seem mind-boggling (one member of my advocacy group kept confusing billions and millions…pretty big difference) but the fact is that it doesn’t even represent an actual increase for NIH funding; instead, science advocates are just trying to keep up with inflation rates and maintain purchasing power, which has decreased 22% over the last 10 years. I can confidently state we’re all feeling the effects of the deflated NIH budget. 

During Hill Day, ASBMB splits up the young scientists to groups of 2 or 3, each led by a Public Affairs Advisory Committee member (an established researcher serving an advocacy role in the ASBMB).  My team was led by a department chair at University of Massachusetts and included an undergraduate at Ashford University in Iowa and a PhD candidate at University of Nebraska.  We spent the day running around Capitol Hill meeting with Congressional staffers from our group’s states (12 meetings in total for our little group!).  From the Illinois side, we got to meet with the offices of Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin and Representatives Bobby Rush (IL District 1) and Robin Kelly (IL District 4).  All told, ASBMB Hill Day incorporated 102 meetings with delegations from 32 different states.  Our objectives were pretty simple: provide a “face” to science advocacy.  We went into each meeting, briefly described our research before speaking about the general benefits of biomedical science and how we help improve society.  Then we led into our “ask” to increase NIH and NSF funding along with other ASBMB-supported policy issues, such as immigration reform to retain foreign scientists, enhanced STEM education, and research and development tax credits.  ASBMB provided helpful information on each Congressman we were meeting (biography, policy interests and committees) and some broad advice (“avoid partisanship”, “don’t suggest a program that can be cut to increase NIH funding”) but I was surprised how easy the conversation flowed in the meetings.

Here’s the good news: ultimately, everyone wants to fund biomedical research.  After all, it’s difficult to argue against improved therapies and healthier citizens.  Furthermore, scientific research benefits the national economy, with an estimated $2 return on every dollar invested in the NIH budget.  It’s not too difficult a sell in prosperous times, but in the current economy, it’s important to remind Congress of the worthwhile investment in scientific research.  The real challenge is to communicate why science requires steady, predictable funding and why the government should contribute instead of relying on industrial research.   Only one Congressman questioned how we should fund our proposed NIH increase.  Overall, we met with very encouraging staffers, including those from offices of Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Senator Dick Durbin (IL’s own), both well-known science proponents.  I even had to opportunity to personally meet with Representative Jim McGovern (MA) while he lectured me on all the benefits of funding science research (easiest meeting I’ve ever had). 

 (L to R): Dr. Bob Matthews (UMass Med School), the author, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA)

Unfortunately, our efforts to increase the NIH/NSF budgets will not likely amount to much this year; on September 19th, a Continuing Appropriations Resolution was signed to fund the federal government through December 11th, 2014.  This Continuing Resolution prevents another government shutdown but generally maintains appropriations at the current rates.  Until the government is able to pass a true annual budget, it’s improbable that any continuing appropriations will allow for increased biomedical funding.   That said, it’s increasingly important that scientists take a more active role to promote these interests.  I recommend ASBMB’s Hill Day to any grad students or postdocs who are interested in policy and/or advocacy.  It was a really enjoyable and well-organized adventure (and quite an adrenaline rush).  Spring Hill Day is generally in March and you’re not required to be a member of ASBMB to participate.  In previous years, other professional/advocacy societies – including the Coalition of Life Sciences, Society for Neuroscience, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, PanCan, and American Association for Cancer Research – have hosted similar events.  Short of dedicating a few days to head to D.C., all scientists should help the cause by contacting their representatives in Congress or by getting involved with different professional societies to speak on behalf of biomedical research.  We all understand that the research we do is important, but science cannot live in a vacuum; therefore, it’s essential that we better communicate our value and concerns to both society and our government representatives.

Elizabeth Little is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Medicine.

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