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Science Funding and Politics – Learning How to Play their Game

In this guest post, John Vernon, an undergraduate in the College of Science at Notre Dame, reflects on the lessons he learned about science and policy after a summer in Washington DC.

United States Capitol - west front
By Architect of the Capitol ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This past summer I had the opportunity to work for a science policy consulting firm and get a glimpse into the real world outside of academia. I discovered that a strangely symbiotic partnership exists between scientists and those who create and legislate from Capitol Hill. Many scientists and researchers try to stay out of the political game, but that can make it more difficult, and often frustrating, to get public health projects accomplished. Healthcare policy fuels funding, and navigating the Washington, DC political landscape in order to advocate for important scientific research is definitely not for the timid novice. There is no scarcity of interest groups on the scene, including professional consultants who focus on representing public and global health sectors. But how do they do it, and can you learn to do it for your projects too?

The name of the game is money, and that means proving that your research interests are worth investing in. This affects university research departments that have a critical need for government funding in order to carry on their work.  However, convincing the powers that be about the value of research science is easier said than done.

On the Executive side, the White House has its own Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to help the President in addressing scientific research questions and making judgments regarding new polices and programs. OSTP also forms relationships with the private sector for evaluating potential investments in industry, academia, and other sources.   Researchers who are able to match their areas of interest with those identified as high priority by the government will clear the first hurdle in the funding process.  However, there are multiple agencies that also weigh in on what they think is worthwhile to pursue. They all have the opportunity to influence what will actually happen once the “budgeting game” begins.  The Washington insiders are clearly familiar with this and have a sophisticated level of expertise that scientists frequently lack or loathe. This poses a challenge each spring when all the different government agencies submit their own budget proposals to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  After lots of “horse trading” the final recommendations are given to the President in order to prepare the final budget for Congress to vote on in February of each year. They control the purse strings dictating how the money should be spent, and the allocation of funds is often based on political considerations, as much if not more than proven need.

When there is a dearth of financial resources to go around, the competition within the scientific community heats up.  This rose to new levels when there were drastic budget cuts enacted through sequestration.  For many scientists, sequestration is synonymous with the “Day the World Stood Still”. Prospects for continuing grants, fellowships, and ongoing research projects were drastically compromised.  However, this government process of withholding funds actually began in 2011, and has been a hotly debated topic because of its significant affect on the scientific and research community. For the past 2+ years since Congress passed the Budget Control Act, there have been caps on discretionary funds for Public Health, Environmental Protection, and Law Enforcement.From my perspective as a scientist, it is important to consider the potential consequences that accompany this mandate to reduce funding by over $1 trillion dollars over the next 10 years. What price will society pay for this austerity?

According to a report from the American Public Health Association (APHA), the Department of Health and Human Services faced $3.7 billion in cuts on March 1, 2013.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention specifically saw $35 million in funding cuts, and experts warn that this will reduce our ability to respond in the case of health threats. In addition, the funding reduction for the National Institute of Health was $1.6 billion. This lack of financial support in multiple areas of scientific research will undoubtedly hamper progress and impact the public health of millions.

A recent Huffington Post article, based on more than two-dozen interviews with scientists and academic officials summarized specific examples of the devastating impact that sequestration is having on research projects.  The NIH $29.1 billion budget for the current year seems quite large, but it has dropped from a high of $30.8 billion before sequestration.  There is every indication that circumstances will continue to be less than ideal and funding competition will only intensify. There is a strong argument for being able to make a case to the powers that be why your research makes scientific and practical sense for the public interest.

Thomas Frieden official CDC portrait
Thomas Frieden. By Center for Disease Control [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Some scientists have recognized how important it is to become pro-science activists and engage in the legislative process in order to be successful in advancing their cause in this ever changing, and politically driven climate. On April 19, 2013 Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Human Rights, and International Organizations. He got the attention of the policymakers because he discussed a rising concern over the overuse of antibiotics, while also highlighting the noticeable void of research into this area. Dr. Frieden stressed the need for research and preventive treatment citing the facts that  diseases like MRSA and the H7N9 influenza are becoming a major health concern.

By introducing a plan developed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to protect against health threats, and reinforce containment and border protection, Dr. Frieden moved the conversation into a science policy discussion. His presentation was a plea for additional funds to combat growing antimicrobial resistance, and emerging threats including salmonella and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. Congressional Hearings in May 2013 also identified other domestic and global health concerns that are preventable as long as there continues to be adequate research funding and support. This is the collaborative relationship that will promote the best science and result in the most effective public health policy.

There are several organizations worth knowing about if you want help with getting support for science initiatives. The Coalition for Life Sciences (CLS) is the conglomerate of six different nonprofit organizations focused on supporting public policy, and advancing life science research and its many applications. One particularly well known, and impressive group that has a strong presence in Washington, D.C. is the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This organization recognizes the importance of communicating science and technology, and believes that currently the needs for credible and objective information are not adequately fulfilled.  As a solution, in 1973 they developed a special Fellowship Program with just seven Fellows, and now they fund over 250 annually. They include recent PhD graduates and accomplished scientists with many years in education and industry. Their mission is to link policy and science, while creating an association of knowledgeable leaders who understand both fields, and can provide solutions to policymakers who make government decisions. The main program areas they cover are security and development, energy and the environment, health and education, big data, and global health. I have personally spoken with AAAS fellows about how they view their role in Congress, and the consensus is that the political process is very slow but thorough and policy decisions can be influenced with sound scientific input.         

Now more than ever, it is imperative that the scientific community learns to work collaboratively with policymakers on establishing a platform for funding significant research initiatives. In order to achieve this objective, the first strategy is to build credibility and develop relationships with policymakers, rather than simply trying to disseminate information, when they may not be receptive. As research scientists, we need to remember to talk in a language that is understandable to non-scientists, and includes practical applications as well.  The “KISS (Keep it Simple Scientists) Formula” is a good model to follow in order for research to be presented in a format that is user-friendly for the policy makers, regardless of their background, training, or experience.  They are charged with a very important job, and will be better able to do it effectively if they have the support of scientific data and professional expertise. Another strategy is to make sure your information tells a story and includes some reference to a problem or concern to which many people can relate. Although certain areas of public and global health may not get a lot of media attention, lives are at stake and the potential contributions from scientific developments is extremely important both domestically and throughout the world.

As members of a new breed of young scientists, we need to encourage and empower one another.  We must be ready to rise to the challenge and become involved in the debate in order to advocate for those initiatives we believe need to be pursued. Science must grow beyond the lab, and I believe this will only happen if we are part of the solution. We must  be willing to get out of our comfort zones and embrace the strategies that work well in the public policy arena in order to get the really important scientific messages out.  It is our time to step up and make a real difference in the world of public and global health.

2013-12-15 11.02.48 pmJohn Vernon is a senior Science Pre-Professional and Psychology double major at the University of Notre Dame. He has been involved in multiple research labs related to the study of Autism as well as concussions. Next year, John will be pursuing a Masters of Science at Notre Dame in Scientific Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Sources:

1.     Olsen, KL, Gilbert L. Science Policy Ethics Guiding Science Through Regulation of Research and Funding [PowerPoint]. Notre Dame, IN. College of Science Science Technology Policy Seminar; 2013.

2.     Sequestration ushers in a dark age for science in America. Huffington Post Website. Accessed August 20, 2013

3.     Sequestration’s impact on public health funding. The American Public Helath Association Web site. Accessed August 20, 2013.

4.     Frieden TR. Meeting the Challenge of Drug-Resistant Diseases in Developing Countries.  Washington, DC: The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Human Rights, & International Organizations; 2013.

5.      Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. The AAAS Fellowships Web site. Accessed August 20, 2013.

6.     Bogenschneider KP, Little OM.  Advancing Evidence Based Policy: Getting Your Research Across To Policymakers. [PowerPoint]  Honolulu, HI. American Psychological Association Conference; 2013.

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