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

IMG_9972

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

Meet a Biophysicist Marching for Science

As an official partner of the March for Science, the Biophysical Society encourages members to participate in the event, in person or virtually, and speak up for science. Prior to taking to the streets on Saturday, April 22, in over 525 cities worldwide, meet a BPS member planning to March:  Connie Jeffery.  Connie is an
associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Her lab works on protein structure and function using biochemistry, biophysics, and bioinformatics methods.  The lab has projects in basic science and also focused on diseases – cancer, tuberculosis, and inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis).  She will be marching in Chicago, Illinois on April 22.

 

Dr. Constance Jeffery poses in front of a ribosome sculpture at a Cold Spring Harbor meeting.

 

Why did you sign up to march?

I’m concerned about the huge cuts in the proposed federal budget for NIH, NSF, and other parts of the government that fund scientific research.  I am also concerned about potential cuts to agencies that protect the public like the EPA and the FDA.  I am also concerned about so much “pseudoscience” that is misinforming the public, especially things like incorrect information about what to eat or not to eat, quack cures, anti-GMO activists, and anti-vaccination drives that can harm people.  On the more positive side, I would like to share information about the importance of science and what scientists do.

What do you hope to get out of the day personally?

I’d like to share my love of science and encourage young people to consider a job in science, help inform the public about the importance of science and what scientists do, and also learn from others interested in science, including other scientists, but also environmentalists and people with family members who are suffering from diseases that can be potentially cured in the near future (as long as funding is not cut).

What do you hope it will accomplish?

I hope we can better inform the public and our representatives at the local, state and federal level about the importance of science and that there are many American voters who care about science.  There have been such amazing breakthroughs in the past 15 years that we have the potential to find better treatments and ease a lot of suffering soon, but the opportunity will be missed and many people will continue to suffer needlessly if funding is cut.

What will your sign say?

I’m planning to make multiple signs, and to have messages on both sides – things like “Prevent suffering in children:  Fund Research on Childhood Arthritis”, “Fund Cancer Research”, “Fund Autism Research” and from growing up in Cleveland “Before the EPA the Cuyahoga River was so polluted it BURNED {picture of one of the fires}.  Not just once – THE RIVER BURNED MULTIPLE TIMES. Today with the EPA: {and then a picture of how clean and beautiful it looks today}”, “Vaccinations Save Lives”, etc.

Thanks to Connie and everyone else planning to celebrate science at the March!

Post-Election: BPS President’s Message

Dear Biophysical Society Members,

sfscarlataNo matter what side of the aisle we are on or what part of the world we live in, the recent US election and the campaigns leading up to it have left us with a feeling of divisiveness and unease. This is only the latest world event to bring to the forefront fissures that exist among people.  It has made many want to shut themselves off from the world around them.  As scientists and as citizens, we cannot do that.

The amazing strength of biophysics is its inherent diversity, and it is this diversity that has impacted fields far beyond biophysics.  Now more than ever, we as biophysicists need to work together to demonstrate through our actions, our work, and our outreach, the power of inclusivity, diversity, civil discourse, and collaboration.  The Biophysical Society has always been an international, global organization, representing incredible breadth and diversity of scientific areas, as well as diversity in every demographic aspect possible. I cannot stress enough that the Society has always been committed to inclusivity, respect of others and selves, and collaboration among disparate groups.  This will never, never, never change. We appreciate our members as scientists and human beings, and we appreciate what every member brings to the Society.

And now more than ever we as biophysicists need to engage in civil discourse to show how working together creates a better future for all.  We need to reach out to non-scientists and speak to them as fellow citizens in understandable terms so that they can appreciate the implications of the science policy decisions they make through their votes.  We need to work at the grassroots level within our own communities to make everyone understand that scientific research leads to better jobs, to a better environment, to healthier lives, to more prosperity.

This is not the time to isolate ourselves from one another, but quite the opposite.  It is a time to work together to use what we know best to help educate those around the world about the hope that science research brings to all. It is a time to come together and continue our tradition of respect and inclusivity.

Suzanne Scarlata
Biophysical Society President

Be a Voice for Science in Washington, Apply to be the Next BPS Congressional Fellow

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Randy Wadkins, BPS’s 2016-17 Congressional Fellow, in the Halls of Congress.

With the election two weeks away in the United States, it is almost impossible to miss talk of politics.  Even if it is missing from the public discussion at the moment, what these politicians are tasked with doing when they are in office is set policy.  While the public and the mainstream media aren’t focused on science policy, it is something that elected leaders have to consider.  So, where will these elected Senators and House members, most who don’t have a science background, get their information?

From their staff.

And the Biophysical Society want to make sure that scientists are among those staff members.

 The Society is currently accepting applications for the 2017-2018 BPS Congressional fellowship.  The individual selected for the Fellowship will spend a year working in a Capitol Hill office advising the senator or congressman for whom they are working on science-related issues.

The BPS fellow will be one of 30+ AAAS Congressional Science and Technology Policy Fellows.  The AAAS Fellowship program has been bringing scientists to Washington DC to work both on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies for 43 years.  The purpose of the program is two-fold:  1) provide scientific expertise to policymakers and 2) have scientists understand the policy making process.

Worried you wouldn’t have a clue what to do in a congressional office? The AAAS has that covered. The program kicks off each September with two weeks of intense training on how the government operates, who the players are, and what your roll will be.  The program also guides you through the process of finding a placement for your fellowship.  The training continues throughout the year.  In addition, each cohort of fellows usually form a pretty tight bond.

This is a very unique opportunity, open to BPS members that hold a terminal degree (PhD, MD). Fellows could have just graduated, or have 20 years in the lab under their belt.  Individuals that have completed the AAAS fellowship have found the experience to be professionally rewarding—whether they have chosen to return to bench science or use their science knowledge in other fields.

Have we peaked your interest?  Learn more about the BPS fellowship and the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows.  Applications are due December 15!

 

Where do the Candidates Stand on Science?

White-House-SD-Qs-Banner.jpg2016. An Election year in the United States. It’s nearly impossible to turn on the television, pull up news on the computer, or scan your social media accounts without seeing some sort of political news. Often the coverage is about the horse race aspect of the election— polling numbers, for example—or the candidates’ whereabouts on the campaign trail.  Occasionally the coverage is policy based.  Rarely, though does this include a candidate’s views on scientific issues.

Earlier this month ScienceDebate.org released 20 science questions to which it would like the Presidential candidates to respond.  The Biophysical Society assisted in the creation and vetting of the questions and endorsed the final list.  Along with other leading science organizations, the Society would very much like to hear where Clinton, Trump, and the third party candidates stand on these important questions that touch on vaccines, climate change, jobs, and research.  The questions received attention from the press, but the candidates have yet to respond.  We hope that they will in the coming weeks.  We also hope to see some of these questions posed in the national debates.

Here are the questions.

ScienceDebate.org was originally started in late 2007 to garner support for science issues to be included in Presidential debates prior to the 2008 election. Candidates Obama and McCain did go on record with responses to the questions then; here’s hoping Clinton and Trump let us know where they stand!

First Golden Goose Award of 2016 Goes to NIH-funded Social Science Researchers

Ce0-qDSWQAIRhtTRESEARCHERS BEHIND LANDMARK ADOLESCENT HEALTH STUDY – A STUDY
THAT ALMOST DIDN’T HAPPEN – WILL RECEIVE GOLDEN GOOSE AWARD,

Five researchers whose determined pursuit of knowledge about the factors that influence
adolescent health led to one of the most influential longitudinal studies of human health—with far-reaching and often unanticipated impacts on society—will receive the first 2016 Golden Goose Award.

The researchers are Dr. Peter Bearman, Barbara Entwisle, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Ronald
Rindfuss, and Richard Udry, who worked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
(UNC) in the late 1980s and early 1990s to design and execute the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, or Add Health for short.

The social scientists’ landmark, federally funded study has not only illuminated the impact of social and environmental factors on adolescent health—often in unanticipated ways—but also continues to help shape the national conversation around human health. Their work has provided unanticipated insights into how adolescent health affects well being long into adulthood and has laid essential groundwork for research into the nation’s obesity epidemic over the past two decades.

“Four bold researchers wanted to learn more about adolescent health. Who knew that one federal study would change the way doctors approach everything from AIDS to obesity?” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), who first proposed the Golden Goose Award. “Decades later, this work is still paying off, helping Americans lead longer, healthier lives. America always comes out ahead when we invest in scientific research.”

The pathbreaking nationally representative Add Health study has answered many questions about adolescent behavior, with particular attention to sexual and other risky behaviors, but it was almost stopped in its tracks by political concerns.The study’s design grew out of the American Teenage Study, a project developed by Drs.Bearman, Entwisle, Rindfuss, and Udry. This initial adolescent sexual health study was designed to look at adolescents’ risky behaviors in a social context, rather than focusing only on individuals, in hopes of helping the nation address the growing AIDS epidemic and other public
health concerns. After two years of planning work funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American Teenage Study passed peer review and was funded by the NIH in 1991. But the grant was subsequently rescinded due to objections regarding the study’s focus on sexual behaviors.

In 1993, Congress passed legislation forbidding the NIH from funding the American Teenage Study in the future, but at the same time mandating a longitudinal study on adolescent health that would consider all behaviors related to their health – implicitly including sexual behavior.

“I congratulate Dr. Rindfuss and his colleagues on this award, which underscores the vital
importance of federal funding for research,” said Rep. David Price (D-NC), who was a key
advocate in the House of Representatives in the 1990’s for continuing to pursue this research. “Federally supported research projects not only produce new life-saving treatments and expand our understanding of the world around us, they also spur economic growth and innovation in ways we cannot always anticipate.”

In 1994, Drs. Udry and Bearman, now joined at UNC by Dr. Harris, proposed Add Health to
meet Congress’s new mandate. The new study maintained the American Teenage Study design’s strong focus on social context, but significantly expanded the scope of inquiry to include all factors influencing adolescent health. The study has followed its original cohort for over 20 years, and it is now providing valuable information about the unanticipated impacts of adolescent health on overall well-being in adulthood. For this reason, the researchers recently changed the study’s name to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, and it is a landmark example of how longitudinal research can yield extraordinary and unexpected insights.

“Science often advances our understanding of the world in ways we could never have foreseen,” Rep. Bob Dold (R-IL) said. “Regardless of how this research began, it has served as a breakthrough for understanding the way society molds our personal health. That’s why congressional funding and support for breakthrough research is so important to push us forward as a country.”

The nationally representative sample and multifaceted longitudinal data paired with a
revolutionary open-access model have enabled more than 10,000 researchers to publish almost 3,000 research articles on human health. These scientific studies have strengthened an understanding of the importance of family connectedness to adolescent health, allowed researchers to track and scrutinize the rising tide of the obesity epidemic, and demonstrated the social, behavioral, and biological importance of adolescence to lifelong health and wellbeing.

What began as a study driven both by social science curiosity and public-health concerns has been central to shaping the national conversation around adolescent health for more than two decades.

The Golden Goose Award honors scientists whose federally funded work may have seemed odd or obscure when it was first conducted but has resulted in significant benefits to society. Drs. Bearman, Entwisle, Harris, Rindfuss and Udry are being cited for their extraordinary multidisciplinary, longitudinal study of the social and biological factors that influence adolescent health, and their work’s wide-ranging and often unexpected impacts on society. The five researchers will be honored with two other teams of researchers – yet to be named – at the fifth annual Golden Goose Award Ceremony at the Library of Congress on September 22.

About the Golden Goose Award
The Golden Goose Award is the brainchild of Rep. Jim Cooper, who first had the idea for the award when the late Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) was issuing the Golden Fleece Award to target wasteful federal spending and often targeted peer-reviewed science because it sounded odd. Rep. Cooper believed such an award was needed to counter the false impression that odd sounding research was not useful. In 2012, a coalition of business, university, and scientific organizations created the Golden Goose Award. Like the bipartisan group of Members of Congress who support the Golden Goose Award, the founding organizations believe that federally funded basic scientific research is the cornerstone of American innovation and essential to our economic growth, health, global competitiveness, and national security. Award recipients are selected by a panel of respected scientists and university research leaders.

The Biophysical Society has been a sponsor of the award for the past three years.

Science Fares Well in FY 2016

On December 18, Congress passed a $1.5 billion omnibus spending bill that funds the government through September 1, 2016. The bill increases funding for science at several federal agencies, which was made possible by the budget deal in late October that provided relief to sequestration for the discretionary parts of the federal budget (this includes all research programs).

With the budget settled, agencies can now move forward conducting business and making grant awards with the knowledge of how much money they have for the year. The chart below shows information for several programs and agencies of interest to the biophysics community.

Federal Funding for Science Agencies (in millions)

Agency

FY 2015 Enacted Level

FY 2016 Enacted Level

Difference between FY 15 and FY 16 Percent change between FY 15 and FY 16

National Institutes of Health

$30,073 $32,100  

$2,000

 

6.6%

National Science Foundation

$7,344 $7,460 $120 1.6%

Department of Energy Office of Science

$5,067 $5,350 $279

5.6%

NASA Science

$5,245

$5,589 $344

6.6%

NIST Science and Tech Laboratories

$676

$690 $755

2.1%

Department of Defense Basic Research $2,278 $2,309 $31.5

1.4%

Veteran’s Affairs Medical and Prosthetic Research $588.9 $631 $42.1

7.1%

And, here are a few notes:

  • The $2 billion increase for NIH is the largest increase for the agency since 2003. This is a huge win for the biomedical community! Within that amount $200 million is designated for the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI); $936 million for Alzheimer’s disease research (which is a $350 million increase); $150 million for the BRAIN Initiative (an increase of $85 million); and $100 million to National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for antimicrobial resistance research.
  • Within the NSF budget, “Research and Related Activities”receives a $100 million increase over FY 2015; this is the account that from which funding for research grants comes.  The “Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction” line decreased $45 million from FY 2015.
  • The language that appeared in a House appropriations bill for NSF earlier in the year and that would have decimated the Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBE) and the Geosciences Directorates was removed.  Instead, included language states that SBE should be funded at no more than the FY 2015 level. The House Science Commitee and NSF have been in an elongated battle over how NSF selects grants.  NSF must continue to certify that all awards are in “the national interest.”

With 2016 wrapped up, its time to start the process for funding the government for 2017. The Administration  have been working on their proposals since the summer. The process should be made a bit easier by the budget deal that was struck in October; it created a top line number for both 2016 and 2017.  The President will  lay out his vision for his last year in office during the State of the Union on January 12.  He typically sends his budget request to Congress the first week of February.