SAN DIEGO, Calif.—Continuing its clarion call to motivate scientists and clinicians to advocate on behalf of cancer research funding one year after convening the 2013 Rally for Medical Research (OT 5/25/13 issue) at last year's Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, the American Association for Cancer Research this year held a science policy session titled “NIH and NCI Funding: How the AACR and Our Partners are Taking a Stand Against the Decades-Long Decline in Federal Funding for Research and Development.”
The perspectives of an AACR government affairs and science policy expert, former member of Congress, patient advocate, and cancer center director were expressed during a panel discussion.
Speakers lamented the serious funding crisis that peaked last year when the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute's budgets were decreased five percent by the sequestration—amounting to about $1.6 billion overall, including a $293 million cut for NCI.
Although the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed this January did restore some of these cuts, current funding is still lower than prior to sequestration, and AACR would like advocates to take advantage of the November elections to urge members of Congress to recommit to making funding of NIH and NCI a national priority.
Jon G. Retzlaff, AACR Managing Director of Science Policy and Government Affairs, said that there will not be any additional funding for fiscal year 2015—meaning that, at best, funding will remain flat.
“The President's budget is proposing a $200 million increase for NIH, but it will be a challenge to get Congress to pass it,” he said in an interview following the session. In addition, after the 2016 election sequestration is scheduled to take place again unless there is a change in law.
The NIH budget has not kept up with biomedical inflation—losing 22 percent over the last decade. “It's a bad year to have a good idea,” he said. “This is the time to act, before the November elections.”
The leadership of AACR, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the Association of American Cancer Institutes, and Friends of Cancer Research were scheduled to hold a joint “Hill Day” on May 8, and on September 18, AACR and other organizations will hold a grassroots Rally for Medical Research Capitol Hill Day in Washington (rallyformedicalresearch.org).
Last year's Hill Day in September brought together some 180 organizations representing 40 states. Retzlaff said that all AACR members are encouraged to attend this year, and it is hoped that the number of organizations will double and that all 50 states will be represented.
Also speaking at the session, Brian Bilbray, a Republican seven-term congressman representing California's 50th congressional district who left Congress following defeat in the 2012 elections, said that both he and his daughter had been diagnosed with skin cancer—his, less serious; and hers, melanoma.
He noted that both the left and right factions of Congress were not moving in the same direction and it is important to get each side to turn to the other a little.
“You have to stop being so polite and patient,” he said, addressing scientists. Advocates should “get in the face” of U.S. representatives, and be committed to ending cancer “as we know it” within a finite period as had been done with polio and AIDS (transforming it from a deadly to a manageable disease).
“We're all part of the food chain, and you are the plankton in the food chain,” he said. “Without you [the scientific community], pharma has nothing to work with. You are planting the seed for the next great miracle.”
He said it is necessary to remind Republicans that without science, industry won't have the building blocks; and that the private sector and the research community are a team and that neither can do anything without working together.
Bilbray pointed out that NIH funding was doubled in the 1990s, but it wasn't sustainable. It is important now to reach out to new members of Congress immediately after Election Day before they officially start their terms and move to Washington, he said.
Also on the panel, Andrea Ferris, President and Chairman of the LUNGevity Foundation, said that involvement in federal advocacy means “putting a face to cancer”—“You're talking about people, and patient advocates have to remember that. We have to build communities of meaningful engagement, and train survivors and advocates,” she said. Researchers should partner with patients and advocates because “we are all in this together.”
George Weiner, MD
George J. Weiner, MD, Director of the University of Iowa's Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Vice Chair of AACR's Science Policy and Government Committee, said the tragic reality is that promising to deliver science to patients is in great jeopardy because of funding and partisan politics.
He shared his thoughts on advocacy from the viewpoint of a researcher and clinician, saying that only a very small percentage of clinicians and researchers are involved in advocacy. “Our voice needs to be heard more than ever… and it takes very little time to advocate,” he said [see more on next page].
Scientists need not go to Washington, he said—they can call, send emails, or visit with legislators when they are back in their home districts and invite them for tours of laboratories or clinics.
“I'm really frustrated when researchers say advocating is not their job. But no money, no mission—it is your job,” Weiner said, also noting that he is from the state that is home to the presidential Iowa caucuses, as well as to biomedical champion Democratic U.S. Senator Tom Harkin.