On November 15, as representatives of the world’s 20 richest nations were meeting in Washington, DC, to try to hash out ways to stem global economic hemorrhaging, more than 31,000 scientists began arriving a few blocks away for the 38th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). The coincidence did not go unnoticed. For many neuroscientists, and junior faculty in particular, the top priority after neurons is finding the support to study them. Over the coming days, the Alzforum will report on some of the scientific studies presented at this year’s conference, but we start with a story that is of interest to not only all Alzheimer’s researchers, but all neuroscientists: how will the recent election and current economic slowdown affect your chances of getting funded?

That question was the subject of an SfN Public Advocacy Forum, organized well before Election Day by John Morrison, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, and held on November 18. At the forum, entitled “The Elections: And the Winner Is...Science?,” there was palpable optimism that when President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in on January 20, the current dire funding situation will change for the better. (The NIH budget has not seen a real increase since 2003, and at present manages a meager 10 percent success rate for grants.) This not-so-audacious hope is nourished by what panelist Katrina Kelner, Deputy Editor of Life Sciences at Science Magazine, called the “post-election glow.” It was tempered by a dose of fiscal realism from the three other panelists: former NIH Director Harold Varmus, now president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York; Wendell Primus, Senior Policy Advisor to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi; and the Honorable John Porter, Chair Research!America Board of Directors.

Despite the sobering economic climate, the take-home message from this discussion was that an increase in science funding might well be realized. But there was a catch—scientists must take an active role in lobbying lawmakers. Quoting Obama, Morrison, who chairs the SfN Government and Public Affairs Committee, said, “Everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and get involved in finding solutions.” The panel echoed this sentiment.

Varmus said that the current situation is not unlike that when President Clinton appointed him director of the NIH in 1993. Grant approval success rates had dropped precipitously—partly because the length of grant had been extended—and there were not only obstacles to increasing the budget but also suggestions of a 5 percent cut to all agencies. Instead, Congress enacted a bill that doubled the NIH budget over five years starting in 1998. Since 2003, NIH funding declined by 14 percent in real terms, which Porter, a former Republican representative of Illinois, called a “disaster.” During that time, he said, discretionary federal spending went to defense, homeland security, and veterans’ affairs. Everything else was flat funded. That, said Porter, highlights the challenge ahead. The desire to consider other priorities—education, labor, national parks, for example—is very strong. “This was the most exciting election in my lifetime. People are hugely inspired and have had their expectations raised,” said Porter, but he added that on January 20, 2009, those expectations will come home to roost.

Primus agreed. He said that though the $100 billion stimulus package currently being considered includes $1 billion for the NIH, its chance of passage in the lame duck session is slim. Primus predicted that lawmakers will muddle on through December, and major funding issues will fall to Obama on January 20. When President Bush was inaugurated in 2001, the Congressional Budget Office estimated a $5.6 trillion national surplus, while on January 20 President Obama will inherit a $7 to $9 trillion deficit, Primus said. “Funding for you depends on reducing that deficit, and that depends on taxes,” said Primus. “You have to make the case that investments have long-term payoff.”

Porter believes that payoff is a robust economy. He suggested that if the country is not devoted to science, innovation, and research, then the economy will stagnate. Without continued investment in basic and translational research, the U.S. will have trouble competing with the rest of the world. Varmus suggested also arguing for short-term value, that funding science pays for salaries for researchers and non-researchers alike, and for purchase of supplies and the support that goes with it. Funding science acts as its own stimulus package, Varmus said.

The panelists emphasized that to boost funding, scientists need to engage not only members of Congress but also the public. Scientists are a respected segment of the community, suggested Porter, and urged the audience to use that to their advantage. “Write a letter to the editor, an op-ed piece, get people into your lab or office and talk science to them,” he suggested.

For his part, Morrison listed four steps scientists can take:

  • Sign up for the SfN Advocacy Network
  • Take part in Capitol Hill Day—meet members of Congress and their aides
  • Conduct a lab tour for elected representatives
  • Become a science advisor to your local representative

Porter advised that in talking to lawmakers, scientists should have a concise plan for what they want the lawmakers to do because after listening for 20 minutes, that is what they will ask for. Varmus and Porter both argued for aiming for a predictable, reasonable increase in funding. Porter suggested 3 percent a year adjusted for inflationary costs in the medical research field.

What is likely to happen on the funding front after January? Primus predicted that the first bill to be passed may be an economic recovery bill, which will deal with unemployment benefits, food assistance, and assistance to states. The second bill will likely be an appropriations bill, which may increase funding for the NIH, CDC, and other agencies. After that, Primus expects carryovers from last year to come up, including the Health Information Technology Bill and the FDA Tobacco Bill. Primus argued for increased funding for clinical research, specifically comparative drug trials, which could eventually help reduce prescription drug costs. This is likely to be controversial.

As for the executive branch, though Varmus chaired Obama’s science advisory committee, he said that stint was over and that he does not have the ear of the President-elect. Porter noted that how quickly the new president will name a science advisor to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and whether this will be a cabinet-level position will be early indicators to the priority of scientific research in the new administration. After that, Obama’s first State of the Union address will lay out the agenda for years ahead, Porter said.—Tom Fagan.


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External Citations

  1. SfN Advocacy Network

Further Reading