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Visiting Capitol Hill to Advocate for Science, By Amanda Labuza

This month I attended the Society for Neuroscience’s (SfN) 13th annual Capitol Hill Day to advocate for increased, reliable scientific funding. It is vital that scientists speak up to our government about the importance of funding basic science. If we do not ask for increased funding, we will not receive it.

I was joined by 48 other society members, from 25 states and five countries, to bring our request to Congress. SfN members visited 83 Congressional Offices, two Congressional Committees, and dropped off materials at an additional 17 offices. Together, over 20% of Congress was visited in one day. In addition to in-person meetings, members took to social media and posted using the hashtags #SfNHillDay over 250 times and #NeuroAdvocate 180 times to engage others as well. Hundreds more wrote, called, or tweeted their Congressmen from their home states echoing our request.

What advocacy groups are requesting

The message to Congress has been agreed upon across the scientific community. Various societies and advocates visited and wrote Congress to request a $2 billion increase to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, a $900 million increase to the National Science Foundation (NSF) budget, and release of the $500 million dollars to the BRAIN Initiative that was promised in the 21st Century Cures Act for fiscal year 2020. This has been such a unified request across advocacy groups this year that Senator Sherrod Brown’s staff members knew these exact numbers before I even asked.

Why we need to visit Congress

While the budget for fiscal year 2020 will not be officially passed until October, budget negotiations have already begun. President Trump released his budget proposal last week, calling for a $5 billion cut to the NIH budget, which would decrease it by 13% to $34.4 billion dollars1. Although the president’s budget is merely a request and has no legal standing, it is concerning to see this layout of priorities from the White House.

The lack of value the president has placed in NIH is one of the many reasons why it was so important for scientists to meet with Congress. We cannot expect Congress to increase the NIH budget without requesting it. Even with the $2.5 billion request for NIH, this would still put the total budget below FY2003 when accounting for inflation2.

What scientists can offer Congressmen

While NIH funding is typically a bipartisan issue, it is still crucial we provide resources to our representatives. Senator Rob Portman’s office described how he prefers to use economic arguments regarding government shut downs rather than stories about pauses in science. We were able to provide their office with statistics on the number of jobs supported by NIH, the number of indirect jobs created (e.g. support staff), and the economic output per dollar provided to the NIH and NSF specific to his state.

Conversely, a staff member at Representative Jamie Raskin’s office took a more personal approach. They asked if we had any stories of students changing career paths away from academia due to worries about funding. As all members of the academic community know, that is a very common problem, and I provided anecdotes about the struggles of graduate students choosing career paths with such unstable funding. Representative Raskin and his staff were unaware of this issue and we were not only able to discuss why NIH research is important, but why the last four years of increased funding still isn’t enough. To feel secure in NIH funding, early career scientists need to not only see increases in funding, but reliable regular order. Between shut downs and continued resolutions, many grants are not being paid out in full on original NIH schedules. It is vital that scientists request not only increased funding, but reliable regular order, free of delays, in passing the budget.

Continued action

Advocacy work has helped the NIH increase their funding for the last four years2. However, advocacy work does not end with a single day on Capitol Hill. Follow-up is essential in politics. Some offices were so busy we could only meet for five minutes at the end of the day. Sending follow-up emails or notes helps them remember who we are; it holds them accountable and ensures that the message gets passed from the staff to the Congressmen. It is important to be diligent about following up. Scientists can continue to be resources to those who support science funding, and persuaders for those who don’t. I urge all scientists to be involved, even if it is as simple as tweeting their representative. Speak up. Be diligent. Keep fighting.

1. Staff, S. N. (2019, March 11). Trump once again requests deep cuts in U.S. science spending. Science.

2. NIH Funding: FY1994-FY2019. (2018, October 15).


Any views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of PLOS.

Amanda Labuza is a PhD student at the University of Maryland Baltimore where she studies the regulation of calcium via SERCA pumps. She tweets @LabuzaHeller.

 

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