Advocates visit Capitol Hill

Published May 01 2019

Hill Day - Callan Frye Callan Frye, a graduate student at the Medical University of South Carolina, shows his enthusiasm for advocacy at the ASBMB’s 2019 Hill Day. For more photos, click here.Courtesy of Callan Frye Twenty undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students joined members of the Public Affairs Advisory Committee and public affairs staff to participate in the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s annual Hill Day on March 28, visiting their elected representatives to discuss Congress’ continued support for biomedical research.

Although President Donald Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2020 called for 5 percent cuts to all science funding agencies in the government, the advocates were heartened by the warm reception they received. Martha Cyert, associate chair of biology at Stanford University, said, “It was encouraging to hear staffers share their support for my science and their understanding of the importance of basic research in helping to discover treatments for diseases. They really seem to get it.”

The agenda for this year’s Hill Day advocates focused largely on asking for increases in funding at the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. But the discussions with lawmakers and their staffs extended to issues beyond funding, indicating a Congress that has a nuanced understanding of and curiosity about how science works.

Kristine Deibler, a postdoc from the University of Washington, was surprised by some of the topics. “My senator’s staff was very direct and interested in hearing about my perspectives related to the issue of sexual harassment in science,” Deibler said. “I was so encouraged to see Congress paying such close attention to this very serious issue.”

This year’s advocates came from 24 states and conducted 83 meetings over the course of their day on the Hill. The student participants, selected from a pool of applicants by the ASBMB’s public affairs staff, arrived in Washington, D.C., the night before Hill Day for a crash course in being an advocate. PAAC members stayed through the following day for meetings with NIH and NSF leaders.

“This Hill Day experience is among the most rewarding opportunities that ASBMB (offers) for its members,” said Matt Gentry from the University of Kentucky, the outgoing PAAC chair. “ASBMB isn’t the only scientific society that holds events like this, but in my experience the organization and staff put on the best show by far.”

Gentry has been a member of the PAAC for five years and is a Hill Day veteran. For some, like Alex Blackburn, a Ph.D. student at the University of Idaho, this Hill Day was their first taste of advocacy.

“This was a very positive, very fun experience,” Blackburn said. “I got to meet really great people on both sides of the aisle. When I get back to Idaho, I look forward to telling my colleagues that they should consider getting involved themselves. I definitely would love to do this again.”

Benjamin Corb Benjamin Corb is director of public affairs at ASBMB. Follow him on Twitter.