Making scientific research a priority for Congress

U.S. Capitol, in black and white
Shaila Kotadia

The Public Affairs Advisory Committee of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology conducted a successful day of Capitol Hill office visits at the beginning of April. The 15 members of the PAAC along with 20 students and postdocs from around the country conducted 97 meetings with members of Congress and their staffs. We found overwhelming bipartisan support for increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Despite the strong showing of support, however, American research is still not a high enough priority for many in Congress to improve conditions in the research community.
 
For instance, while on the Hill, we asked legislators to support a funding level of $32 billion for the NIH and $7.6 billion for the NSF for fiscal 2015. Concurrently, a “Dear Colleague” letter initiated by U.S. Reps. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and Susan Davis, D-Calif., was circulating in Congress, also urging appropriators to allocate $32 billion for the NIH. Out of the 435 members of Congress, this letter garnered 190 members’ signatures: 165 Democrats and 25 Republicans.
 
However, this bipartisan support was short-lived. Not too long after the McKinley-Davis letter was submitted, the U.S. House passed a budget resolution that would balance the federal budget in 10 years, in part by slashing nondefense discretionary programs. Federal science-funding agencies, such as the NIH, are part of the NDD budget and certainly will be cut if this budget becomes law. Unfortunately, 22 of the 25 Republicans who signed the McKinley-Davis letter requesting an increase in the NIH budget also voted to cut the NIH budget via the House budget resolution. All House Democrats opposed the budget resolution.
 
This is just another example of Congress saying it supports the NIH but subsequently doing little to back it up. In March, President Obama signed into law the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act. That law authorizes $12.6 million annually, through fiscal 2023, for pediatric research exclusively. This money is meant to be an addition to the yearly NIH appropriation. To pay for this increased spending, the law terminates federal funding for presidential nominating conventions, instead putting that money into the NIH Common Fund.
 
Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, the act is about as effective as using bubble gum to repair a crumbling dam. The NIH lost $1.55 billion as a result of sequestration in 2013, which is more than 12 times the amount of money Congress authorized in the Kids First Research Act. The ASBMB supports all forms of research, including pediatric research, but the truth is that this act does very little to help a research enterprise that has stagnated during a decade of flat budgets and sequestration.
 
The passage of yet another well-intentioned but fiscally irrelevant NIH funding bill and a House budget that doubles down on austerity demonstrates that much of what Congress does for scientific research is lip service. While many value the contributions of scientific research to the country, the needs of the research community are not a top priority for most members of Congress.
 
This is why the PAAC and ASBMB members continue to conduct Hill Day events, summer recess visits and other advocacy activities. Constantly showing Congress how important scientific research is to the health and economic well-being of America is the only way to raise the priority level of scientific research. Only then will members of Congress consider the well-being of the research enterprise when they vote.

Photo of Chris PickettChris Pickett (cpickett@asbmb.org) is a policy analyst at the ASBMB.

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