Become an effective advocate for biomedical research

Gone are the days when researchers can work in isolation and communicate with the world through papers in specialty journals read by small communities of like-minded scientists. In the competition for funds, the public and our elected officials need to understand and appreciate the benefits of biomedical research to the health and welfare of the nation and the economic vitality of our communities. The stakes are high and the biomedical research community cannot stay on the sidelines.

So, how can you become and advocate for research?  Here are some suggestions.

Start by connecting to a professional society

The Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB) is comprised of over 30 discipline-specific societies including the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular biology (ASBMB), the American Physiological Society (APS), and the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET). In addition to hosting meetings and publishing, the societies have developed advocacy efforts to help shape public policy and mobilize its members.  They have created advocacy toolkits to help members get started. If you are not already a member, find the society or societies that most closely match your interests and join.  The costs of student and postdoctoral fellow memberships are very reasonable and by joining you receive reduced rates on meeting registration, journal subscriptions and publication costs.

Next, decide what issues are important to you and become informed. Subscribe to the FASEB Washington Update (http://washingtonupdate.faseb.org/) or other newsletters, blogs, and twitter feeds to stay abreast of legislative action in DC. As bills work their way through state and federal legislatures, watch for issues related to science policy, funding and training. A recent example is a proposal in the house version of the tax reform bill that would tax PhD tuition waivers, making it even more difficult for students to pursue advanced training, which is essential for the future of biomedical research.

Communicate societal value, ROI of your science

Advocacy requires developing effective communication skills that work with the public. No matter how excitedly you describe your work, don’t expect the public or a legislator to understand its importance or worthiness of funding. Instead, think in terms of accepted societal values.  Focus on the generation of new therapies and cures, education and innovation, economic impact, company and job creation, and American competitiveness in the world.  The ASBMB graphic shown above illustrates how NIH funding nurtures all of these goals. Make sure to point out the return on investment (ROI) for research funding.  Let them know that each $1 increase in public basic research stimulates an additional $8.38 of industry R&D investment after eight years.  You can also point out that the NIH’s Human Genome Project (HGP) has resulted in nearly $1 trillion of economic growth, a 178-fold return on investment at a cost of only $2 per year for each U.S. resident.

While it is important to convey the health improvement and economic impact of investments in basic research, it is also important to your personal story.  Legislators will be interested in your background and the pathway to your current position.  If you are a student, what led you to choose biomedical research?  What are your hopes, and what are you concerns for the future?  If you run a laboratory, what will you be able to do with adequate support and what will be lost if funds are cut?  It is often the personal stories that legislators remember.

Know your congressional representatives 

Legislators want to hear from their constituents (you!). The USF system spans three congressional districts.  USF Tampa (District 14) is represented by Rep. Kathy Castor, USF St Petersburg (District 13) by Rep. Charlie Crist, and USF Sarasota-Manatee (District 16) by Rep. Vern Buchanan.  We are very fortunate to have Congresswoman Castor as our representative in the House.  She understands USF, visits us often, and is a strong advocate for biomedical research. On the Senate side, Florida is represented by Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio. Bookmark their web sites, follow the issues and their voting record, and let them know your opinion when legislation is being debated.  Again, the professional societies have developed resources to help you get started. They provide draft letters and phone scripts for guidance.  There is even a civics refresher that illustrates the complex path a bill takes to become law (www.asbmb.org/Advocacy/Toolkit/WorkWithCongress/).

Meet with legislators to help get your message heard

Lastly, a face-to-face meeting with your representative is an excellent way to have your views heard.  Members of congress split their time between DC and their home districts, and you can schedule a meeting in either place.  Before your visit, review the issues and prepare your comments. Be aware that the schedules of Congressional members are very busy and meetings can be very short, so your message must be focused and well rehearsed.  Think elevator speech.  Know the political party of your member and review their voting record, their special interests, and on which congressional committees they serve. In preparing your remarks, assume that the legislators and their staff are well-educated generalists.  Your issue is one of many that will compete for their attention on any given day. Do not be disappointed if you meet with a staff member instead of your representative.  Congressional staff members are often the content experts who advise their bosses on issues.  Keep your message simple and do not use technical jargon.  Avoid partisanship and express your concerns without complaining or suggesting programs that should be cut to support research.

Remember, a meeting is a very effective way to get your message heard, but it does not substitute for letter writing and other forms of advocacy.  After your meeting amplify your message by posting on social media. Finally, be sure to send a thank you note to each person you met.

In this time of intense competition for public funds, we cannot be complacent and let others speak for us.  Become an advocate for biomedical research.

Sincerely,

Robert J. Deschenes, PhD
Chair, Department of Molecular Medicine
Sr. Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Education
USF Health Morsani College of Medicine