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

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

AAAS Annual Conference: An Inspiring Experience for our Postdocs

By: Laurie Risner, PhD, Postdoctoral Affairs Administrator

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, annual conference was held in Chicago last month.  This was an excellent opportunity for BSD postdocs to attend an international conference with wide-spread scientific interest and a variety of programming in our own hometown.  Thanks to an effort by the PDA to spread the word about this event, and generous support from the Dean of the Biological Sciences Division, Dr. Polonsky, over twenty postdocs were able to attend.  The BSD Postdoc Office was also represented at the AAAS conference with Dr. Nancy Schwartz and myself attending.

Beth Russell, a postdoctoral scholar in Surgery and co-chair of the Public Affairs subcommittee of the Postdoctoral Association, thought of the idea to request special funding from the Dean, so that a few postdocs could take advantage of the opportunity to attend the AAAS conference during a year that it was being held in Chicago.  Dean Polonsky generously offered to provide funding for ten BSD postdocs’ registration, so that we could receive the discounted group rate.  

I organized a lottery in which postdoc scholars and fellows from across the BSD could submit their names to receive funded registration at the conference.  Thirty-seven postdocs submitted their names in the lottery, which is over 10% of the postdoc population.  Ten grateful postdocs were selected in the lottery and received the group rate.  In addition, myself and more than twelve UC postdocs and research professionals were selected to be poster judges for the AAAS student poster competition and were honored with an very low registration rate.  In the end our group from the BSD came to at least 25 people!  

In addition to our many poster judges for the student session, several postdocs also presented posters of their own research at the conference.  Postdoc scholar Sunhwan Jo commented, “I was able to connect with several poster presenters, including undergraduate researchers and postdocs.  I could see their passion and it was great talking to them.”  Postdoc Santosh Kumar added, “I was able to present my research project to an out-of-field audience, where I was given ideas to expand my work. I am extremely grateful that I was given this great opportunity to participate and attend the AAAS Conference.”

The theme of this year’s AAAS meeting was “Meeting Global Challenges: Discovery and Innovation.” The conference consisted of career development workshops, scientific symposia, plenary lectures, poster sessions, a large exhibit hall, a family science day open to the public, and many special events.  I especially enjoyed the plenary talks.  Nobel Laureate and former US Secretary of Energy, Dr Steven Chu, discussed the energy crisis in our country and offered promise for the future.  Alan Alda, former actor turned science advocate and communicator, offered us great reason and tips to communicate science to the public.  In addition, having the chance to talk to students interested in science and to attend career development workshops made the AAAS conference a very positive and inspiring experience.  Postdoc Rebecca Pompano reflected on the conference, “I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to attend the AAAS meeting this year.  AAAS is unlike most other conferences, in that does not focus on the details of the science arising out of a particular area of study.  Instead, it focuses on the impact that scientific research can have on society, and on ways that scientists can get make sure that their messages are heard by the public and the policy makers.  It is exciting to feel be reminded of how important our work can be and what impact it can have on the lives of real people.”  

The career development workshops were especially useful and appealing to our postdocs.  A recurrent theme at the career workshops and many other AAAS events was “communication skills.”  From talking to politicians, to using LinkedIn and social media, to understanding how to use improvisation as a tool in communicating science to the public, it was clear that scientists need to enhance their communication and share their stories about their research and life as a scientist with the rest of the world.   Postdoc Natasha Wadlington commented on the communication sessions: “Receiving tips on how to use social media, talking with the press, and even the improvisation session to help connect with your audience was such an invaluable learning experience. I am currently utilizing the methods that I learned, not only for my own career, but I am also passing down some of the information to colleagues and students in our lab.”

Overall, our group had a very positive and inspiring time at AAAS.  Here are some final quotes from our postdocs who attended the conference:

“I was thrilled by the convergence of multiple topics in all fields of science, many unfamiliar to me. It was an important reminder of how urgent global awareness is for a scientist. I mostly focused in all science communication events and workshops and had an extremely valuable experience closely interacting with several professionals in that field. Thank you for this great opportunity to be a better scientist and a better communicator!”
Ana Cristina Gomes, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow

“The greatest part about AAAS was the diversity of the presentations and the professionals there. I attended meetings covering federal funding of basic research, entrepreneurship, and advances in big data for health sciences. Additionally, there were fantastic networking opportunities there:  I talked with Congressman Randy Hultgren and Nobel Laureate Dr. Martin Chaulfie in addition to many other leaders in academic and private sciences. These connections will be invaluable for my career to come. I would highly recommend attending the AAAS to any graduate or postdoctoral scientists.”   
Sean W. Fanning, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow

“I particularly enjoyed the many career development workshops offered during the meeting, and I am quite confident that new skills I have learned in writing, presenting, and communication, will no doubt help me with my future career path. This meeting has instilled me a desire to pursue some form of scientific outreach, and I will continue think of ways in which my scientific training and background can help and influence the community.” 
Heather Titley, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow

“While I have been fortunate to have had many positive experiences throughout my tenure at UChicago, attending the 2014 AAAS meeting was one of the most positive experiences of my scientific career… Many times as post docs, we are at the bench with our “nose stuck in the data” and we are almost too close to our own studies to see the forest through the trees. It was very refreshing and invigorating to attend the AAAS annual meeting to get back up to the 30,000-foot level to get an overall survey of where we stand as scientists in society as a whole. It is an experience I won’t soon forget, and I would like to thank Dean Polonsky for the opportunity to attend the AAAS meeting.”    
Vanessa Leone, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar

Read full reflections from the postdocs here.