Mr. Waters goes to Washington

Written by: Chris Waters

Primary Source: Watershedding

On September 18th, I was a Congressional lobbyist. Before you tar and feather me, I was part of the Michigan State University “Rally for Research” team at Washington DC. This event brought together hundreds of researchers and advocates from 40 states to lobby Congress and the Senate in support of increasing funds for biomedical research. It was an amazing, eye-opening experience that taught me the following:

1. Major universities have talented people in Washington DC representing their interests. Our trip was organized by MSU’s representative, Mary Malaspina, and I spent my day with James Williams, the DC representative of Wayne State University. Mary and James are permanently stationed in DC and are thoughtful, talented advocates who know Capitol Hill and have working relationships with Congressional staff. They want the people they represent (a.k.a University faculty, staff, and students) to help them promote their Universities interest in DC and are great resources to work within the political system to effect change.

2. In concept, everyone in Washington DC supports the NIH. I spoke with the offices of six Michigan House members and everyone from liberal democrat to conservative republican expressed support for the NIH. However, it is clear to me that the failure to increase support for scientific research is a casualty of these larger budget battles (Obamacare, entitlements, etc.). But, I came away from my visits convinced that IF/WHEN these issues are resolved there is political will to restore or even increase funding for scientific research.

3. Increased funding for biomedical research is an easy, easy argument to make. I did a fair amount of background research for this trip, which I will discuss in more detail in later blogs, studying why we should fund biomedical research. The three main arguments that I pushed are biomedical research: 1) improves health and is essential to tackle looming health crises such as antibiotic resistant infections, 2) funds directed towards biomedical research are an investment that grows the nation’s GDP, and 3) the funding climate is discouraging younger scientists leading to a research “brain drain”. All of these arguments are important and resonate with Congressional offices and staff.

4. YOU can speak with your Congressional representation (or at least their staff). I was amazed by the open accessibility of the congressional offices. Sure, there is security one must traverse when entering these buildings but from my vantage point it seemed anyone could come inside. With the help of Mary or James, or even on your own if you don’t have a lobbyist working with you, anyone of us can set up an appointment with these offices to argue the merits of funding scientific research. How many trips do we as a scientific community take to Washington DC for study sections, conferences, or the like? What if we made it a point to regularly speak with our representatives? One message that I consistently heard was visits from constituents, especially skilled professionals, have a big impact on the opinions and actions of our representatives.

5. I am more hopeful about the future of research funding in the US.  Let’s face it. The numbers are depressing. A 25% cut to the NIH budget over the last five years…another sequester looming…other countries greatly outspending the US in research funds. But after talking to six congressional offices I truly believe that there is inherent support for scientific research from both sides of the aisle. Our challenge is to convert this inherent support into legislative action. We can sit idly by complaining about the situation or actually do something to change it. I encourage any of you with specific examples of how budget cuts have negatively impacted ongoing research or the scientific environment of the US to contact your Washington DC representatives (or your DC lobbyist) and share your story.

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Chris Waters
I am an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University studying microbiology, chemical signaling, gene regulation, evolution, and developing new antibacterial compounds. I hope to provide some perspective on the ups and downs as life as an assistant professor in a large research institution. You can learn more about my group at: https://www.msu.edu/~watersc3/