Asking for a Small Piece of the Nation’s Pie

By Rosalind Mott, PhD


This article was originally published in the Penn Biomed Postdoctoral Council Newsletter (Spring 2015).

Historically, the NIH has received straightforward bipartisan support; in particular, the doubling of the NIH budget from FY98-03 led to a rapid growth in university based research. Unfortunately, ever since 2003, inflation has been slowly eating away at the doubling effort (Figure 1). There seems little hope for recovery other than the brief restoration in 2009 by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Making matters worse, Congress now has an abysmal record of moving policy through as bipartisan fighting dominates the Hill.

Fig 1: The slow erosion of the NIH budget over the past decade
(figure adapted from: http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43341.pdf)
Currently, support directed to the NIH is a mere 0.79% of federal discretionary spending. The bulk of this funding goes directly to extramural research, providing salaries for over 300,000 scientists across 2500 universities.  As the majority of biomedical researchers rely on government funding, it behooves these unique constituents to rally for sustainable support from Congress. Along with other scientists across the country who are becoming more politically involved, the Penn Science Policy Group  arranged for a Congressional Visit Day (CVD) in which a small group of post doctoral researchers and graduate students visited Capitol Hill on March 18th to remind the House and Senate that scientific research is a cornerstone to the US economy and to alert them to the impact of the erosion on young researchers. 

Led by post-docs Shaun O’Brien and Caleph Wilson, the group partnered with the National Science Policy Group (NSPG), a coalition of young scientists across the nation, to make over 60 visits to Congressional staff. NSPG leaders from other parts of the country, Alison Leaf (UCSF) and Sam Brinton (Third Way, Wash. DC), arranged for a productive experience in which newcomers to the Hill trained for their meetings.  The Science Coalition (TSC) provided advice on how to effectively communicate with politicians: keep the message clear and simple, provide them with evidence of how science positively impacts society and the economy, and tell personal stories of how budget-cuts are affecting your research. TSC pointed out the undeniable fact that face to face meetings with Congress are the most effective way to communicate our needs as scientists. With the announcement of President Obama’s FY16 budget request in February, the House and Senate are in the midst of the appropriations season, so it was no better time to remind them of just how important the funding mechanism is.

Meeting with the offices of Pennsylvania senators, Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, and representatives, Glenn Thompson and Chaka Fattah were key goals, but the meetings were extended to reach out to the states where the young scientists were born and raised – everywhere from Delaware to California. Each meeting was fifteen to twenty minutes of rapid discussion of the importance of federally funded basic research. At the end of the day, bipartisan support for the NIH was found to exist at the government’s core, but the hotly debated topic of how to fund the system has stalled its growth.
Shaun O’Brien recaps a disappointing experience in basic requests made to Senator Toomey. Sen. Toomey has slowly shifted his stance to be more supportive of the NIH, so meeting with his office was an important step in reaching the Republicans:

We mentioned the "Dear Colleague" letter by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) that is asking budget appropriators to "give strong financial support for the NIH in the FY2016 budget". Sen. Toomey didn't sign onto it last year, especially as that letter asked for an increase in NIH funding to $31-32 billion and would have violated the sequester caps-which Sen. Toomey paints as a necessary evil to keep Washington spending in check. I asked the staffer for his thoughts on this year's letter, especially as it has no specific dollar figure and Sen. Toomey has stated his support for basic science research. The staffer said he would pass it along to Sen. Toomey and let him know about this letter.

Unfortunately, three weeks later, Sen. Toomey missed an opportunity to show his "newfound" support for science research as he declined to sign a letter that essentially supports the mission of the NIH.  I plan to call his office and see if I can get an explanation for why he failed to support this letter, especially as I thought it wouldn't have any political liability for him to sign.

Working with Congressman Chaka Fattah balanced the disappointment from Toomey with a spark of optimism. Rep. Fattah, a strong science supporter and member of the House Appropriations Committee, encourages scientists to implement twitter (tweet @chakafattah) to keep him posted on recent success stories and breakthroughs; these bits of information are useful tools in arguing the importance of basic research to other politicians.

Keeping those lines of communication strong is the most valuable role that we can play away from the lab.  Walking through the Russell Senate Office building, a glimpse of John McCain waiting for the elevator made the day surreal, removed from the normalcy of another day at the bench. The reality though is that our future as productive scientists is gravely dependent upon public opinion and in turn, government support. The simple act of outreach to the public and politicians is a common duty for all scientists alike whether it be through trips to the Hill or simple dinner conversations with our non-scientist friends.


Participants represented either their professional society and/or the National Science Policy Group, independent from their university affiliations. Support for the training and experience was provided by both the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (Cambridge, MA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS of Washington, DC).

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