Tales from the field
What are you doing to improve how research is conducted in this nation? Yes, flat budgets and the threat of across-the-board cuts have researchers scrambling to find the money to support their work. And yes, the funding environment is causing students and postdoctoral scholars to find work in other fields. And on top of all this, one of the few ways to ease this pain requires a deeply partisan and dysfunctional Congress to come to agreement and increase funding for biomedical research.
But the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Office of Public Affairs is not so pessimistic. Why? Because biomedical research is one of the few remaining bastions that receive bipartisan support in these hyperpartisan times. This is why Benjamin Corb, ASBMB director of public affairs, issued the “100 Meetings Challenge.” Corb challenged members to schedule 100 meetings during congressional recesses to show Congress that biomedical research is essential for the health and economic viability of our nation.
The ASBMB realizes that the idea of venturing into the realm of politics makes some scientists uneasy. What will you talk about? What will the tone be? Does the office even care? To help answer these questions, we had some of our challenge participants tell us a little bit about their experiences.
Richard Thompson, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and his colleagues met with several members of the Maryland congressional delegation. Here is an edited excerpt from his take on these meetings:
Probably the most important thing is that organizing these meetings was easy: Ultimately, we met with staff or members from five Maryland districts and both senators over two weeks. All the staff people and the three congressmen we met with were very welcoming and eager to listen. The ASBMB was a big help in supplying leave-behind material and talking points as well as a useful video on the etiquette of these meetings. We kept the message simple and found the members and their staffs were interested in biomedical science: We weren’t so much selling our point of view as having a conversation.
We would strongly urge our colleagues in all states to meet with their representatives and senators at home during recess or when they come to Washington, D.C., for a seminar or conference. The congressional meetings were interesting and took only a little time and effort, and we feel like they had a substantial impact.
Rafael Alvarez-Gonzalez, an ASBMB member since 1987 and a member of the editorial board for Cancer Investigation, met with a pair of offices in Texas and had this to say about his experience:
A powerful driving force to the long-term success of the ASBMB as a leading scientific society for more than 100 years has been, no doubt, the proactive participation of its members. In my case, I had the privilege of meeting with the honorable Kay Granger and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, respectively.
To be succinct, the most important point that was underscored in this dialogue was the irreversible negative impact that their decisions might have on the biomedical research community overall … should the (National Institutes of Health) budget be reduced or not adjusted for inflation at the very least — but preferably increased to $32 billion in 2013 and $35 billion by 2015.
Students and postdocs got involved as well. Thomas Magaldi, a postdoc at the National Cancer Institute, told us the following:
I immediately jumped at the opportunity to meet with local congressional representatives to advocate for biomedical research funding. However … I feared that Congress did not appreciate the impact of NIH funding on the continued improvement of human health and on the growth of the economy. One 20-minute meeting with Congressman (Chis) Van Hollen, the top ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, helped to alleviate many of my fears. Knowing that representatives such as Congressman Van Hollen are fighting for research funding provided me with optimism over the future of science and technology in the United States.
A graduate student at the Mayo Graduate School at the Mayo Clinic, Shirley Dean, also met with a pair of lawmakers in Minnesota. She reported:
The staffer [in the first meeting] appreciated me taking time to meet with them and share my experiences as a researcher. During my second meeting, the staffer was captivated by the issues I raised as I articulated the need for funding increases or at least funding stability that keeps pace with inflation. They saw the passion I had for the sciences and how I and other researchers are working to engage our communities in our research and science in general. This second staffer complimented me for having the audacity to present these issues to them, and I found both of my meetings beneficial for establishing a professional rapport with the politicians who are instrumental in establishing the budgets of government funding organizations.
Finally, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is the U.S. Senate minority leader and a well-established fiscal conservative. Matthew Gentry, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, visited McConnell’s office to meet with one of the senator’s staffers. He told us this story after his meeting:
Simply stated, the entire process was very easy and enjoyable. I expected a 15-minute meeting, but the staffer was quite engaged, and we talked for (about) 45 minutes, which was not a problem, because the ASBMB provided more than enough material. When the staffer left, she commented on the professional appearance of the ASBMB materials, and she said that my preparation of key points and the ASBMB leave-behind materials made her job a lot easier.
I came away feeling that my meeting went very well and that the staffer would communicate my views to her boss. I also felt that this meeting, in and of itself, likely will not make a difference. However, if every congressperson is contacted by multiple science advocates, then we will see a difference. She was very willing to listen and pass on my messages, but one voice isn’t enough.
The challenge volunteers have blazed the trail, but it’s up to you to take up this mantle. Will you sit at home and hope for the best, or will you get involved and make your voice heard?
Chris Pickett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the science policy fellow at the ASBMB.