On Wednesday, March 19th, a group of researchers organized by the Society for Neuroscience descended on Capitol Hill to let Congress know how important it was to reverse the budget cuts inflicted by the sequester and increase funding to the NIH and NSF. Biomedical research is important to the long term health and prosperity of Americans, they said. It creates jobs. It can spark innovative new business sectors. It contributes to the welfare of our soldiers. It distinguishes us internationally. It alleviates the economic burden of sad, costly and chronic health issues. In fact, it is the only hope against increasingly recognized but painfully untreatable disorders like autism, Alzheimer’s, MS and PTSD.
The researchers told all of these things to the bevy of congressmen, senators and staffers who gave them audience, hoping to capture the interest and concern of the policymakers in a blitz of meetings.
The overwhelming response from those policymakers? “We know.”
Many of the researchers who went were young researchers who looked into the future of competitive scientific funding and found the vision uncomfortably stark. Others were senior researchers who were aware of the unprecedented show of interest in neuroscience and biomedical research from politicians, including the President. All of them were intrigued by the very cool new technologies that are right on the cusp of propelling neuroscience to heights that were previously implausible. Clearly, if there was any topic towards which politicians might be especially amiable in these less-than-amiable political times, it is the need for sustained American biomedical research. Right?
And as it turns out, Congress is strongly in favor of biomedical research, and not just in the form of political lip service. It is no exaggeration to say that every member of Congress—and probably all of their staffers—has either been affected by a neurological disorder directly, or has a family member or close friend who has been: parents, children, relatives, not to mention large blocks of voters.
Many different groups have come in to congressional offices over the past few months to reinforce the need to our elected officials to keep NIH and NSF funding up, including the NIH and NSF. The scientific societies and non-profits have told them. The universities have told them. The private biomedical companies have told them.
“We know, and we agree,” they say.
But if that’s true, why was the sequester allowed to dramatically cut funding to biomedical research? Why has the NIH been barely able to keep up with inflation at least the past five years? Why does there seem to be such pessimism about the long term prospects for scientific funding in the country, and such bemoaning of our investment of research compared to other world powers?
Well, it so happened that the same day that the neuroscientists were headed into congressional offices, many senators and congressmen were somewhat preoccupied with a vote scheduled that afternoon, a continuing resolution to keep the federal government open and operating. Needless to say, the whole budget thing is a bit of a distraction on the Hill. And the President was in Isreal, and there were immigration issues, and gun issues, and social issues, and the concerns of all other victims of the shotgun-shelling of federal discretionary spending, all clamoring for the attention of those in power.
So again, the answer to the question of whether or not Congress recognizes the need to support biomedical research: “We know. We agree. But man, these times are tough.”
It could be very easy to become cynical when given such a response, but it is especially important for scientists to embrace that response as an opportunity. With all the shuffling and voices and messiness, individual members of Congress have one big task in front of them that could bring significant positive results in favor of research. That task is prioritization.
As members of Congress look at their budget plans and try to make sense of the madness, they have to sort out their priorities so that they can get control. They have to prioritize to satisfy their constituents. They have to prioritize to get the important things done. And when each of them faces re-election (which I imagine none of them should find especially easy, at this point), it will be their priorities during these tough times that will define them. Therefore, they will be searching for the high priorities that will be just right for them.
I ask you, members of Congress, what would constitute a good priority? How about innovation? That’s a good one. How about investment in the future? How about stimulating economic growth and relieving widespread economic burdens? How about creating jobs and improving quality of life for the people of their state and districts? How about prioritizing policies that will allow people to dream and get excited? And how about a priority that will directly help you and your family in a way that won’t get you arrested? And not just that, how about a priority that will benefit every single one of your constituents, regardless of social class? Well, if that all sounds good to you, have I got one big, sexy priority for you to consider.
On behalf of scientists everywhere, Congressmen, you’re welcome.