The promise of biomedical research, and of advancing scientific discoveries to the point where they benefit patients, has never been greater. On the other hand, the excitement and optimism associated with this incredible opportunity is dampened by the cuts in federal funding for biomedical research. Both new and experienced investigators are struggling to get funding for projects that garner a high level of peer-review enthusiasm.
However, the situation is not hopeless. When there is a public outcry about a particular issue, governmental leaders respond despite partisan bickering—for example, air traffic control problems related to sequester budget cuts were fixed within days after outcry from the travelling public.
If advocacy is a potential solution to our current funding crisis, why do only a small percentage of clinicians and biomedical researchers participate? Here is a Top 5 list of excuses, and why each one fails:
#1: “My elected official says s/he already supports biomedical research.”
This may be true, but it does not negate the need for advocacy. Many legislators feel we are already doing enough to support biomedical research. They need to be told that progress is proportional to investment, and that funding reductions over the past few years are slowing progress towards life-saving discoveries.
Furthermore, it isn't enough for legislators to say they “support” biomedical research. They need to make biomedical research a legislative priority.
I have heard from Democratic congressmen that they support increasing funding for biomedical research, but only if the funding comes from a reduction in defense spending. Republican congressmen are equally supportive, but expect the funding to come from entitlement cutbacks. If biomedical research is a true legislative priority, both sides of the aisle would figure out how to work across the partisan divide to make it happen. We need to provide pressure to increase the commitment from “support” to “priority.”
#2: “Biomedical research is too complex to explain.”
Clinicians explain complex concepts to patients, and researchers teach students. This experience prepares us well to be advocates who can communicate effectively with legislators and their staff. Indeed, it is possible to explain very complex scientific concepts by avoiding scientific lingo and framing the discussion using real-life examples. Pairing up with patients and advocates who can explain the personal impact of research is also extremely helpful.
#3: “The biomedical research community has tried advocacy. What good did it do?”
Advocacy has done a huge amount of good. It played a central role in the doubling of the NIH budget a decade ago and in the inclusion of NIH stimulus support in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. While the NIH has actually fared better than other segments of the federal government during the current budget squeeze, its funding has fallen far behind the inflation rate and the needs of the research community. If legislators do not hear from us loud and clear, they will assume all is well.
Talking to newly elected legislators and their staff can be particularly helpful in shaping their understanding and opinion about biomedical research in a way that will have a positive impact for years to come. While advocacy may not have a measurable impact tomorrow, it plays a central role in bending the curve towards more support in the future.
#4: “I don't get to Washington often enough to advocate.”
Advocacy does not need to take place on Capitol Hill. Clinicians and scientists can make phone calls and email their legislators. They can use social media to spread the word about the importance of biomedical research funding. They can visit with their legislators and staff when they are back in the home district.
Indeed, senators and congressmen tend to be more relaxed and more able to listen when they are in the district than they are when distracted by D.C.'s demands. Perhaps the most effective approach is to invite your legislator and their team for a tour of the lab or clinic, where you can show them in person the importance of the work that is being done by their constituents.
#5: “It's not my job to advocate.”
This may be the worst excuse of all. While we would all prefer to spend our time with patients or in the research laboratory, the fact is, if there's no money, there's no mission. Each and every clinician and investigator should get involved in advocacy. We work together on the mission of reducing the burden of disease.
We need to put the same passion into working together to advocate for that mission. It takes little time, and in fact can be both interesting and fun.
In conclusion, every day, clinicians and researchers analyze complex situations and identify those areas where action can be helpful. There is a perception that because of the current level of political dysfunction in Washington, nothing can be done to address the underlying funding crisis in biomedical research. Thus, to use a clinical metaphor, many feel “there is no effective treatment for the funding shortage, so we thus have no choice but to hunker down and focus on palliating its impact.”
In truth, though, there is a treatment for the cause of our current funding crisis: It is based in our democracy (with all of its warts) and it is called advocacy.
So no more excuses. Take your medicine. Go forth and advocate!