While science funding cuts threaten researchers’ livelihoods, a group of 30 Penn scientists visiting the capital Wednesday isn’t going to take it sitting down.
As part of Rally for Medical Research’s “Hill Day,” the group — most of whom are students pursuing Ph.D.’s in biomedical sciences or engineering — met with lawmakers and their staffs to advocate for restored research funding.
“Even though [legislators] kind of know these things are going on, and they know biomedical research is important, they can’t really personalize it,” said Marishka Brown, a postdoctoral fellow studying sleep medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine.
After massive budget cuts hit sources of federal research funding hard — particularly the National Institutes of Health, which grants Penn billions of dollars a year — most legislators say they understand the importance of research dollars, but that rhetoric hasn’t translated into more support.
“It’s a little bit disappointing because everybody professes to like biomedical research, to value biomedical research, to be for federal government [funding] to the NIH,” pathology professor Yair Arnon said, but “their actions don’t match their talk.”
Despite an aura of pessimism for many of the participants — Brown is considering going into fields other than research due to a paucity of research grants — many felt the trip was a success.
“I came in with a little bit of a different message than everyone else, and I really felt that, at the end of the meeting, people really incorporated my message into what they were going to bring back to the senators,” Jacob Berger, a doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering, said. Most of the participants are primarily funded by the NIH, but Berger — who met with New York legislators — advocated for the National Science Foundation.
While materials research doesn’t have the same emotional appeal that disease research does, Berger said, “that technology is just as important in our quality of life and bringing new jobs.”
“My research is about semiconductor optics, and that is a huge field for all of technology. Semiconductors are the foundation of all electronics today — everything is silicon-based, and without it, we wouldn’t have computers or smartphones or anything we have in our lives,” he said.
However, not everyone received such positive reactions.
One of the staffers for Republican Mississippi Rep. Gregg Harper was “fiery and antagonistic” to Brown, she said. After Harper left the room, the staffer told her that the congressman “relished the idea of a government shutdown.”
Overall, though, participants were satisfied with the trip and several said they would do it again if given the chance.
“Even if I convinced one person, that’s enough for me to want to do it again,” Berger said.
Anna Stern, a doctoral student in neuroscience who met with West Virginia legislators, said that while the trip was successful, “in the future, I would try to meet with people who I know disagree with me on these issues so … it’s not a preaching-to-the-choir situation.”
The Penn Science Policy group, which organized the trip, is laying the groundwork for a follow-up trip in the future.
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