In years past, there has been a healthy line of strong voices supporting the research community, and those backers have followed up their talk with action by increasing funding at agencies like the National Institutes of Health.
Take, for instance, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and U.S. Rep. John Porter, both Republicans who played essential roles in orchestrating the doubling of the NIH budget in the early 2000s. And then there was U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat who single-handedly fought for $10 billion in federal stimulus funds for the NIH in 2009. These members of Congress valued federal investment in the research enterprise and provided tangible results that shaped the research community into what it is today.
More recently, however, the bench of real champions for research has grown rather thin.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, an outspoken Democrat from Connecticut and a cancer survivor, is among the loudest and strongest NIH supporters on Capitol Hill. Sadly, DeLauro works in the House of Representatives, which has reached a point of near uselessness, as partisan politics and unwillingness to compromise rule the day. Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran from Kansas also has shown sincere interest in supporting funding for the NIH and even has proposed funding increases (heresy to many in his party) but has yet to reach a position of authority to follow his well-intended proposals with results.
The 535 members of Congress represent Americans from all walks of life, and I spend much of my professional life talking with these lawmakers and their staff members about the importance of supporting and funding biomedical research. The more time I spend talking with them, the more I become convinced that biomedical research is just not a priority for them. Certainly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a member of Congress who is against biomedical research or against increasing the NIH budget, but it’s a lot harder to find someone actually willing to fight for either. And the reason is simple. They’re not hearing from their constituents that research and research funding are important issues worth fighting for.
These observations underscore the need for scientists to build stronger relationships with their elected officials. Why am I putting the onus on scientists? Because you are the constituents! You have the ears of your elected representatives. Whether your representative is giving speeches about immigration reform, fiscal responsibility or anything else, it’s because that person’s constituents have conveyed the message that those topics are important. And as much as I’d like for members of Congress to follow through on their talk by funding research, it’s the scientist-constituents who have to pressure elected representatives into putting their money where their mouths are.
Scientists must help lawmakers understand the importance of funding research not just for America’s status in the world but for the health and well-being of their own family members and neighbors. Scientists can no longer be a silent constituency without the time or interest to get involved. Furthermore, science proponents need to be savvier and hold elected officials accountable when their words and actions don’t match. If current trends continue, many scientists will have more time on their hands than they know what to do with.
If you want to turn the tide, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology can help by informing you of what’s happening in Washington or setting up a meeting for you with your elected officials as part of the ASBMB 50-State Challenge. Isn’t it time we all move beyond lip service?