Advocating for Science on Capitol Hill: a Scientist’s Perspective

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Author Christy Gaines (R) with a staff member from the Office of Senator Richard Burr (NC)

On April 26th, I had the privilege to attend STEM on the Hill Day with BPS. I had attended the March for Science the previous weekend, and I was ready to continue to advocate for science funding by speaking directly to the offices of my representatives. I had concerns about my ability to appeal to some offices, as I had commiserated with others at the march about how some elected officials viewed evidence-based policymaking with skepticism. With this in mind, I tailored my message to the offices I visited.

I went to my first appointment, expecting resistance from the staffer of my senator. I had prepared reasons why basic science funding economically helped my state, as well as a few appeals to national security, but expected to leave the meeting demoralized. I got my first, and largest, surprise of the morning: the staffer agreed with me and promised to commit to funding basic science as part of the upcoming omnibus spending bill. In this age political divisiveness, I had not expected it to be as easy as asking for funding. While we talked about a few of my points, we spent most of our meeting sharing our stories, as the Biophysical Society group spoke more about their individual concerns and how science funding affects us personally.

I assumed this meeting was a fluke, as one data point is not an adequate sample size. However, when I went to the next appointment, I was met with similar enthusiasm and attentiveness. As my sample size grew, I learned that this was the norm rather than the exception. I had few interactions that left me disheartened, as almost everyone I spoke to had broad support for basic science. I think due to the politicization of some aspects of science, we tend to think that all areas will become the same. We believe that denying climate research will automatically lead to slashing the NIH budget. However, I think we can use the broad support of biomedical research to validate other areas of science. Everyone I met believed that cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases are worth federal investment. That same belief that people deserve medical care could be used to protect them from Zika virus, pollution, and other climate-change related ailments. What I realized from meeting with the staffers of my congressmen and senators is that our representatives have to do the best they can with the resources they are given. They are constantly bombarded with requests from people with different priorities, and they must choose which ones are funded. It’s easier for elected officials to relate to the patients of cancer and other illnesses, as they have probably encountered similar issues in their own personal life. However, I got the impression that their interactions with scientists are less frequent. To the majority, what we do is an abstract concept, and the best way to advocate for science is to show them how their funding decisions directly affect our careers, and how our research affects others.

I am a young scientist, and my experience with funding only extends to the last decade. However, I remember when sequestration happened, and how it limited my cohort’s ability to choose labs when we started graduate school. I remember when budgets were slashed for universities, and my school opted to pass some of the costs to the undergrads because they couldn’t absorb all of it by changing the teaching labs. By going to my elected officials, I was able to share these stories and humanize the scientists doing this work. They got to meet someone whose graduate education has been fully funded by the NIH. They got to meet a young scientist that will rely on funding in order to get their next job. Importantly, I didn’t go alone, and others in my group could remind them of how mid- and late-career scientists rely on funding as well.

Overall I felt it was a great experience, and I hope to go again. At the very least, it opened up dialogue between my representatives’ offices and me, making it much easier for me to send an email in the future. It also allowed me to view my representatives as people, instead of political enemies or allies. When I write in the future, I am going to believe that they want to help me (and their other constituents) and that I need to give them a reason to prioritize my needs over other spending projects. While it’s easy to give in to skepticism and pessimism, I encourage others to communicate with their representatives. It might be easier than you think.

–Christy Gaines

UMBC Graduate Student

Opportunity to Engage: Biophysics Week 2017

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You are scientist. It is your job to be an expert in what you study, to know and understand the tiniest details of your subject matter. You work with others in your field, and teach/mentor students and postdocs with some background related to your work.  You publish your work in specialized publications so that scientists with similar backgrounds and knowledge of your specialized vocabulary understand what you do. But when was the last time you explained your work to someone outside of your very specific field?  Or talked about biophysics and all it encompasses in general?

The second annual Biophysics Week, March 6-10, 2017, is an opportunity to do just that. The Biophysical Society will be hosting a series of events, including webinars on topics ranging from mentoring to getting a biophysics paper published,  and a Congressional briefing.  Lesson plans and profiles of women in biophysics will be released.  Cell Press will create a picture show, illustrating the beauty unveiled by biophysics research.

But to really reach people, the Society needs you to get involved.

We encourage you to plan an educational outreach event , such as a seminar, webinar, information session, lab tour, open house, or other activity that allows you to share what you and your colleagues do with others. The Biophysical Society will advertise your event on its website, in member communications, and through  social media.

And you will have taken your science out of the lab and engaged.  Maybe the effort will result in a student deciding to take a biophysics class, or find a biophysics lab to work in.  Maybe it will introduce a high school student to the term biophysics and teach him to not be intimidated by it. Or maybe your efforts will result in a non scientist developing an appreciation of basic research.  All are important outcomes.  And they will only happen when we all  engage.

Plan your event and register it here.

Stay up-to-date on Biophysics Week 2017 here.

 

Thoughts after the Vancouver Thematic Meeting

vancouverIt was incredibly challenging to not write about Every. Single. Talk. at the 2016 Thematic Meeting on Engineering Approaches to Bimolecular Motors. For anyone who is considering attending a smaller-scale BPS meeting: pull the trigger! Yes, it scared me at first that pretty much every session seemed unskippable, but coffee breaks were interspersed at the exact times I felt myself beginning to slump. (Also, the lunch breaks were timed so that I could watch whatever Euro 2016 match was on that day too, so really, not much I can complain about here.)

Now, for my (greatly edited) list of scientific highlights:

Andrew Turberfield’s work on DNA walkers was a fascinating start to a broad session that left me incredibly excited to watch the speed and processivity of synthetic DNA-based transporters improve in the coming years (and the clever ways in which these improvements will be achieved).

Perhaps predictably, the talks on rotary motors were right in my wheelhouse (sorry, sorry!). Hiroyuki Noji demonstrated the many ways in which his group has tried (and failed) to break the F1-ATPase. Lawrence Lee, on the other hand, discussed his attempts at the opposite feat: artificially constructing ATP synthase’s sibling, the bacterial flagellar motor (BFM). A little personal highlight was the chance to talk to so many rotary motor enthusiasts at my station during the poster session (which was, overall, exceptionally lively).

The afternoon session on the second day focusing on nanodevices left everyone buzzing (and rightfully so). Though my work was only peripherally related to the topic, several talks in this session made my jaw drop (sometimes literally, making me glad for the auditorium’s “no food or drink” policy). Jens Gundlach’s work on using nanopore technology for accurate single-molecule measurements in particular stood out. The side-by-side comparison of nanopore sensor to optical tweezer traces had me incredulously wondering if they were real or drawn by (an exceptionally steady) hand. (They were real, of course. I asked Jens himself at dinner on the final night.)

As a (most-of-the-time) theorist, I was glad to see quite a few great non-experimental abstracts interspersed throughout the program. We had talked a lot about how good molecular motors (synthetic and natural) are, but in David Sivak’s talk, we heard about the theoretical limits on how good they possibly can be. I’m always happy when there are both theorists and experimentalists in a room, as the combo generally leads to the best of discussions: ones that are both excited and realistic.

Outside of the science, the Pacific Northwest weather behaved extremely well for us, showing me just the right amount of clouds to carry me through the rest of my time in California. A sunny Vancouver in June can’t really be beat…except by, maybe, a cruise in sunny Vancouver in June (well played, conference organisers).

All in all, an awesome week of awesome science and awesome conversation in an awesome city.

 

Neurons, Brains, and Biophysics at the U.S.’s largest science fair

15,500 pipe cleaners.

160 showings of The Human Brain:  Images to Atoms

6000 individuals at the BPS exhibit booth.

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BPS Council member Bob Nakamoto, University of Virginia, helps elementary school students with their neuron models.

In a nutshell, these numbers wrap of the Biophysical Society’s participation in the 4th Annual USA Science and Engineering Festival held in Washington, DC, April 15-17, 2016.

In three short days, Biophysical staff and member volunteers gave over 6000 individuals a glimpse of the power and beauty of biophysics research through a short planetarium style movie showcasing images of neurons and proteins in the brain, as well as a hands on activity– making neuron models out of pipe cleaners.  Pretty amazing numbers considering the Society’s booth was one of over 1000 exhibitors at the Festival.

With a booth at the entrance of one of the exhibit floors (Yes, there was more than one at the festival!), the Biophysical Society’s exhibit was bumping throughout the entire event.  On Friday, school groups made up the majority of attendees, while on the weekend, the attendees were primarily families.  An estimated 345,000 people attended the free event, and it was very heartening to see the interest in science from the diverse crowd.

The Society would like to thank its member volunteers for showing up, being amazing educators, and sharing their passion for science with the next generation.  The Society would  also like to thank its partners in bringing the Dome to the event:  Wah Chiu and Matt Doherty, from Baylor College of Medicine, and the Houston Museum of Science for the use of their equipment.

Want to make a neuron model out of pipe cleaners at home or at a local outreach event?  Here are the instructions on How To Make a Neuron Model.

 

 

My Experience at the Rally for Medical Research Capitol Hill Day

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BPS public affairs committee member Seth Weinberg, far left, with other biomedical research advocates and U.S. Representative Robert Hurt (R-VA), far right.

On September 17, I joined members of over 300 national organizations to participate in the Rally for Medical Research Capitol Hill Day. Many rally participants were fellow scientists from all across the country, attending to urge Congress to provide robust, sustainable, and predictable funding for NIH in 2016 and beyond. However, most rally participants were patients and loved ones, attending to advocate and show support for biomedical research, as those directly affected by disease and those anticipating with hope new biomedical breakthroughs.

Rally participants were organized into groups based on their home state. My group from Virginia met with four House offices and the two Virginia Senate offices.  At these office meetings, I described my experience as an early career scientist, having seen my peers leave biomedical research or the country for more reliable career opportunities, a direct result of decade-low NIH funding levels. I conveyed that basic science research is critical for advances in patient treatment, but that the clinical implementation of basic science research may take decades, making the need for sustainable and predictability funding that much more crucial. In my group, my fellow rally participants expressed their own personal, and often heartbreaking, stories of how disease had directly touched their lives, and each voiced how imperative supporting NIH and biomedical research is to themselves and those similarly affected.

The House and Senate offices that we met with all agreed that NIH funding is important and optimistically stated that NIH support seems to be one issue that Congress members on both sides of the aisle can agree upon.

Seth H. Weinberg,Research Assistant Professor, Old Dominion University

Rally for Medical Research: September 17

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Federal funding for medical research is in jeopardy, threatening the US biomedical research enterprise, the future health of our citizens, and the US economy.  On September 17th, the Biophysical Society will be joining with over 300 national organizations to bring together researchers, patients, and medical professionals to meet with House and Senate offices on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to educate Congress on the important role federal funding plays in biomedical research.  Specfically, we will:

  • Urge Congress to make funding for the the NIH a national priority.
  • Raise awareness about the connection between today’s discoveries and tomorrow’s cures.
  • Explain why the federal government has a critical role to play in funding research.

While the Society will have four members of the public affairs committee participating in the Hill visits on Thursday, September 17, the Society leadership hopes that many more members will participate by picking up the phone, sending an email, or tweeting in support of the Rally. It’s easy to get started on the Biophysical Society’s website.

The Biophysical Society is proud to be a Bronze Level Supporter of the Rally for Medical Research.  

BPS Agrees, America Needs to Support Science Research and Development

The Biophysical Society today joined 252 other organizations as well as leaders of American business, industry, higher education, science, and engineering in an urgent call to action for stronger federal policies and investment to drive domestic research and development.  “Innovation: An American Imperative,” calls on federal decision makers and legislators to step up their support of policies that support science research and development.  The Call underscores the findings—and warnings—contained in The American Academy of Arts & Sciences report, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream.

According to Restoring the Foundation, “There is a deficit between what America is investing and what it should be investing to remain competitive, not only in research but in innovation and job creation.” The United States is failing to keep pace with competitor nations with regard to investments in basic research and development. America’s ascendency in the 20th century was due in large part—if not primarily—to its investments in science and engineering research.  Basic research is behind every new product brought to market, every new medical device or drug, every new defense and space technology and many innovative business practices.

Over the last two decades, a steady decline in investment in research & development (R&D) in the United States has allowed our nation to fall to 10th place in R&D investment among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and development (OECD) nations as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).

At this pace, China will surpass the United States in R&D intensity in about eight years.

These developments led a diverse coalition of those concerned with the future of research in America to join together in presenting the Innovation Imperative to federal policy makers and urging them to take action to:

  • End sequestration’s deep cuts to federal investments in R&D
  • Make permanent a strengthened federal R&D tax credit
  • Improve student achievement in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM)
  • Reform U.S. visa policy
  • Streamline or eliminate costly and inefficient regulations
  • Reaffirm merit-based peer review
  • Stimulate further improvements in advanced manufacturing

Details on these action items, as well as a full list of signatories, are included in the full document.