Grad students lobby Congress for NIH funding

This is the Science Policy Group's third trip to Capitol Hill

· April 6, 2014, 9:53 pm   ·  Updated April 7, 2014, 1:11 pm

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Postdoctoral student Shaun O’Brien knows how damaging federal budget cuts can be.

His cancer research lab had to reduce its staff because budget cuts to the National Institute of Health reduced the amount of funding the lab received.

“I have witnessed how flat funding of the NIH has been impacting the labs here,” he said. “I’ve seen labs that are struggling in terms of the ability to keep staff.”

However, he and several other graduate students are fighting to increase funding to the NIH.

The Science Policy Group, an organization of Penn graduate students from a variety of fields, organized a trip to Capitol Hill on March 26 to lobby for the passage of a bill that would increase NIH funds from $30 billion to $32 billion for fiscal year 2015. Last March, the NIH budget was cut by around $1.7 billion during the federal government’s sequestration.

This is the Science Policy Group’s third trip to lobby Congress. When the group traveled to Washington, twice last year, its mission was to restore the funding that had been cut due to the sequestration.

The group’s efforts were not in vain, as the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 restored NIH funding to pre-sequester levels, said Michael Convente, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in cell and molecular biology.

However, the fight was not yet over. “Restoring funding to where it was a year ago actually puts the NIH at 20 percent less than it was in 2002 if you adjust for inflation,” O’Brien said. He named two main goals for the most recent trip: to thank those who supported the budget compromise and to encourage increased future funding.

Though previously having traveled on their own, the students went on this trip through a “Hill Day” organized by the Science Policy Academic Research Consortium (SPARC), a multi-university coalition that works with graduate students in science.

“Local research efforts help the entire nation,” Convente said, “and through SPARC we are able to convey that to many more congresspeople than [through] just our Penn delegation.”

For Rachel Leibman , a third-year doctoral candidate in cell and molecular biology, her first trip to Capitol Hill with the Science Policy Group two weeks ago was important because it “raise[d] awareness [on] Capitol Hill and show[ed] that there’s a national body of support with multiple areas of research at multiple schools.”

All three students stressed the benefits of investing in scientific research. “The amount that we’re investing in science research has dropped since 2009,” Leibman said. However, countries such as Brazil, China and India continue to spend more on science each year.

“We want America to continue being the world leader in biomedical research, and that takes a strong commitment to fund novel research,” Convente said. “Research supports hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs, advances our status in the world and improves our quality of life.”

O’Brien and Leibman echoed his sentiments, citing the job opportunities and technological innovation that additional funding would boost, as well as “spur basic science research,” O’Brien said.

Looking forward, the group plans to continue traveling to Washington, and to expand its advocacy efforts. “Something I would like to see more of is having our congressional delegation come to Penn more to see the fruits of federal research funding in action,” Convente said.

O’Brien agreed. “We’re definitely trying to create more dialogue between scientists in the Philadelphia community,” he said.

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