November 2009

Young Scientists Take to the Hill


hill day
Lisa Noelle Cooper, a graduate student from Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, came to Washington to advocate for increased research funding.

>>Meet more ASBMB Hill Day Attendees

This past September, members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s policy staff and Public Affairs Advisory Committee descended upon Capitol Hill for one of their regular appearances to advocate for steady and increased funding for biomedical research. This time, though, they added a new twist and brought individuals from the front lines of the research-funding debate: graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

It’s often said that the best way to get your point across is to put a human face on it, and ASBMB took that message to heart, inviting young scientists-in-training from across the U.S. to help convey the society’s message. The students and postdocs were selected, with the help of ASBMB members at local universities, from districts represented by members of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that oversee Department of Health and Human Services and National Institutes of Health funding. In the end, nine talented trainees, representing eight districts stretching from California to Connecticut, arrived for ASBMB’s first Graduate Student/Postdoc Hill Day since 2004.

The students and postdocs spent their first evening in Washington relaxing and getting to know one another at a dinner reception, where they also received a crash course in how to communicate with Congress. The next day, they descended upon the Hill as concerned constituents and, more importantly, as “ambassadors of science.”

Splitting up into small groups, the young scientists and their guides traversed the various House and Senate office buildings to reach their district representatives and senators.

The students and postdocs met with congressional staff, although, in a few cases, the senator or representative did make an appearance as well, and presented their message. That message was two-fold: that they supported the House proposal in the 2010 budget that provides a 3.1 percent increase in NIH funding, and that the NIH needs a commitment to long-term sustainable increases in funding. The fundamental nature of research cannot thrive with a roller coaster ride of booms and busts in funding.

And although they presented some general talking points about the medical and economic value of investing federal money into basic research to bolster the message, the young scientists made sure to emphasize the “personal.” Often with the poise and passion of skilled orators, they discussed specifically how NIH funding and/or stimulus money was helping them complete their research projects and advance their careers, or, on the flip side, how funding problems forced them to abandon potentially valuable projects or change labs. They also talked about how their projects would benefit society and combat diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes. And, finally, they stressed that today’s students become tomorrow’s teachers, who will train and educate the next generation of scientists.

The responses provided by the congressional offices understandably were subdued; while many on the appropriations committees have long been supporters of biomedical research, a general theme amongst the House and Senate staff was noting that health care reform was taking most of the congressional resources, and, combined with the traditional delays in budgeting that occur in the first year of a new administration, a quick resolution may not be at hand. However, many also noted President Obama is a strong supporter of research and said they were hopeful that NIH would receive adequate funding.

Despite uncertainty concerning the budget, the mood after the event remained bright for the participants, who praised their unique experience. ASBMB and the PAAC hope to make Hill visits by young investigators a recurring event and also to have students and postdocs visit local congressional offices and have policymakers take tours of university labs in their districts.

Nick Zagorski is a science writer at ASBMB. He can be reached at


We asked our nine American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Hill Day attendees to answer some questions so we could learn a little more about them as well as their motivations to go to Capitol Hill. >>Meet the ASBMB Hill Day Attendees.

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