May 2013

Why Hill Day alone won’t work

Last month, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee made its biannual pilgrimage to Capitol Hill with students from across the country calling on Congress to support basic biomedical research and research funding at the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. More than three dozen members took to the Capitol, armed with folders full of compelling arguments, facts on local investments in biomedical research and anecdotes underscoring the importance of such federal investment. In fact, the ASBMB wasn’t the only group on Capitol Hill that day making that very argument. Our partner the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology was on the Hill as well. The next day, the Society for Neuroscience had its Hill day, followed a few weeks later by the Coalition for Life Sciences. Hundreds of scientists were visiting Washington, calling in chorus for federal support for biomedical research.
But Hill days are not enough.
The fact is that advocacy has gotten very difficult in this city. In this day of growing national debt and mandatory spending cuts, even an issue that traditionally has benefited from bipartisan support is getting drowned in a sea of partisanship. During our Hill Day last month, we heard a relatively common theme from officials and staffers, Democrats and Republicans alike: Congress has universal respect and support for the excellent work being done at America’s research institutions to help improve Americans’ quality of life; but Congress also has a universal unwillingness to do much to increase funding. For Republicans, it seems to be an issue of federal spending; for Democrats, it seems to be an issue of congressional dysfunction.

Graphic: How legislators perceive issues

In the figure, I’ve shown generally how an elected official makes a decision on supporting or opposing legislation or spending. The top left box is the target zone, where issues that are important to constituents match perfectly with the representative’s legislative goals or values. At the bottom right is where advocacy efforts are rejected easily, because this box represents issues of little importance to policymakers and their constituents. The remaining two boxes are the middle area, and sadly, this is where we find biomedical research funding.
Poll after poll shows Americans’ broad support for biomedical research, with more than half of Americans saying they’re willing to pay more in taxes to support biomedical research funding. What we are failing at is moving our advocacy from the box in the upper right — supported by constituents but not connected to a lawmaker’s goals — to the sweet spot of the upper left.
Visiting Washington is simply not enough. We need more ASBMB members and more colleagues, friends and family members to get involved in our efforts locally. We need those overcoming illnesses to call their representatives and tell them how medical research saved their lives. We need supporters to attend town-hall meetings, write letters, make phone calls and contact the press. Icon: ASBMB Advocacy ToolkitWe need the message delivered twice a year in Washington during ASBMB Hill Days to be echoed throughout the year at the local level. It is only then that we will see the full potential of our advocacy efforts.
Don’t know how to get involved? Visit ASBMB’s Advocacy Toolkit for ideas.

Benjamin CorbBenjamin Corb ( is director of public affairs at the ASBMB.

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