Monday, September 24, 2012

The dilemma of federal funding for science research

Recently I attended Capitol Hill Day, which is organized twice a year by the Coalition for the Life Sciences, an alliance of several organizations focused on science policy. I encourage all scientists (grad students, postdocs, professors) to participate in this event! During Capitol Hill Day, our group of scientists met with staff members of various senators and representatives to discuss the importance of long-term, sustainable federal funding of biomedical research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are primarily responsible for funding research at universities, but there is a threat that this funding will be reduced significantly in the next fiscal year. In a dire economy, it is difficult to make decisions about what takes precedence in terms of receiving funding from the government; however, we scientists urged Congress to understand that the situation is already very bad, and we fear that if funds are cut even further, this will result in a complete standstill of science research across the country.

The NIH and NSF fund grants for science research at institutions nationwide; without these grants, it would be impossible for a laboratory group to continue to conduct research. New professors are especially desperate for these grants; the lack of funding is part of the reason why it has been shown that only a meager 5% of science PhDs end up becoming tenured professors. In this new age of technological advancements, there are many new sophisticated techniques that scientists can use to conduct their research in a thorough and comprehensive manner; however, these technologies can be very expensive, and most laboratories will require multiple federal grants to cover the costs. We should not deny scientists the opportunity to conduct the best research possible, as the biomedical discoveries being made in labs across the country directly affect the well-being of us all, now and in the future. For example, I am studying the genetics of aging, i.e. factors - separate from your surrounding environment - that are already "encoded" within you that determine how long you may live. As the American population continues to live longer, it is becoming increasingly critical to understand the process of how aging actually occurs, so that we can work towards developing therapies for promoting healthy aging in all individuals.

I will admit that some scientists are better than others in terms of explaining to the general public the importance and relevance of their research, which I feel is a real misfortune because the research of biomedical scientists is directly related to improving the quality of life of the general public! This disconnect could be responsible for the stereotype of scientists as elitist or unapproachable (which is of course not true), and improving communication between scientists and the general public (and especially those responsible for funding research) could alleviate any confusion and increase awareness regarding the importance of our research.

Besides funding new or continued research grant proposals, the NIH and NSF also provide funding to institutions for training grants for PhD students. I was surprised to learn that most of the people I met with on Capitol Hill did not realize that training new science PhDs is one of the critical uses of federal funding! I have witnessed a generation of young, intelligent individuals committed to conducting science research and helping our country be a leader in biomedical discoveries; we have received federal support along this journey, of which we are extremely thankful. However, the problem we now face is that our government needs to follow up on its investments - all of these new PhDs who wish to continue conducting research and start their own labs cannot do so because of the lack of funding for new research grants. I personally feel that all this potential in current and future generations of scientists is quickly fading away.

Another example of how federal funding is used is developing science education outreach programs. Scientists including myself have volunteered with an outreach program called Family Science Nights, which is an after-school program where scientists set up demo lab experiments that elementary and middle school students can do; parents are also encouraged to work with their children to do the demos, as well. These programs promote scientific curiosity, learning how to apply the scientific method, and doing hands-on experiments to get both students and parents interested and excited about science. The Family Science Nights also encourage students to design their own science fair project by the end of the school year and participate in the city-wide Science Fair. These science outreach programs are critical because we as lab scientists have access to materials and equipment that are simply not available in the average public school because they are too costly. Additionally, the volunteers can be mentors and role models for the students, acting as real-life examples of what you could become if you study and enjoy doing science. I believe there should be many more relationships developing between public schools and university scientists across the country. Nationwide, students are performing very poorly in science compared to other subjects. According to the College Readiness Benchmarks set by the standard-test makers, ACT, only 30% of high school graduates met the "benchmark" of being likely to pass a first-year college course in science without remedial classwork. It is clear that we need to act now to improve science education, starting with younger children and continuing through high school.

Lastly, I will mention that without these grants from the NIH and NSF, we will not only lose future generations of science PhDs, witness many university labs shutting down and ceasing research, and dissolve any outreach programs in the schools, but the future of that city's local economy will also be disrupted on a large scale. Every science lab indirectly employs many other workers, including marketing, production and distribution of all the products and equipment we use in the lab, other start-up companies founded on research done in the lab, etc. Scientists do, in fact, have a large contribution to the economy.

Overall, I had a very positive impression of my meetings with the congressmen's staff; we engaged in fruitful discussions about where scientists stand regarding the importance of federal funding of science research, and where the government stands regarding how to allocate said funding. It seems that there are still many decisions left to be made before the budget for the next fiscal year is complete, so I remain cautiously optimistic that funding for biomedical research will be maintained at the highest level possible.

During the Capitol Hill Day that I attended, there were about 20 graduate students, postdocs and professors representing states from all over the country; I enjoyed meeting all these scientists with a similar interest in advocating for sustainable federal funding for biomedical research. We all had our own personal stories to explain to the congressmen's staff exactly how this funding is so critical for the work we do on a daily basis, as well as how our research directly impacts the economy. There was also a staff member from the Coalition for the Life Sciences present at all of these meetings to help us get our points across. For example, one of the main goals for this Capitol Hill Day was to ask Congress to protect the NIH and NSF from sequestration, which will go into effect January 1 unless a vote is made beforehand. This would result in a 22% cut for the NIH and 29% cut for the NSF over 9 years, which would have an unrecoverable effect on each of our labs in particular and on the biomedical enterprise as a whole. Additionally, we stressed to Congress that the increase in federal funding for biomedical research has not been above inflation since 2003, so we have already witnessed the impacts of constricted funding. We had the opportunity to meet with congressmen's staff from our state as well as from a few neighboring states; although there was limited time to get our points across, I really enjoyed my discussions with the staff members, who all seemed to be very receptive to our cause and interested to hear our personal accounts. It was very clear to me, though, that without the Coalition for the Life Sciences organizing and facilitating all of these meetings, it would have been extremely difficult for me to actually have these discussions.

Scientists today need to include advocacy as part of their job description; we all need to spend more time being involved with programs like Capitol Hill Day or being grassroot advocates for the Coalition for the Life Sciences, where we can make our voices heard and ensure that the funding for our research will still be here for years to come. During Capitol Hill Day, I had the pleasure of listening to a briefing by Dr. Siddartha Mukherjee, who presented a historical perspective of how cancer research has changed over the years, which is also described in his book, "Emperor of All Maladies". At the conclusion of his talk, Dr. Mukherjee stressed to the audience the importance of funding for research to help address issues like the costs of personalized therapies, developing better clinical trials, and training young scientists. He made it clear that all of the research he was describing, as well as any future prospects of continued biomedical research, would not have been possible without scientists advocating for NIH and NSF funding. Following in Dr. Mukherjee's footsteps, I have invited one of the senators from my state to come visit our university's laboratories and see the research we are conducting; I hope this can be an example of how to solidify a relationship between scientists and Congress now and in the future.

Thalyana Smith-Vikos
4th year, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology
Check out her personal blog at

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Join the "We Are Research" Campaign

It’s no secret that NIH funding for the upcoming fiscal year is far from secure. As graduate students, we are shielded from much of the stress and effort required to fund the labs we work in, but as future scientists, we know that responsibility will be on our shoulders soon enough. 

If you want to ensure funding for biomedical research continues even as the United States faces difficult budget decisions, this is the time to get involved. 

The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) is sponsoring a campaign called “We Are Research” to give Congress a glimpse into the lives of the people performing the research they fund. To participate, all you have to do is take a photo of your lab with a sign proudly proclaiming “We are research!” and submit it to the ASCB website. Once you’re there, take a look at the other suggestions for additional ways to get involved.

To learn more about the current debate over the budget for the coming fiscal year, take a look at the updates on the Coalition for LifeScience (CLS) website. Consider joining the CLS to get timely updates on science policy issues and learn about the outreach opportunities they sponsor as well.

Irene Reynolds Tebbs
6th year, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry