Scientists Get Crash Course in Policy

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA--Scientists are typically thought of as being disinterested in Washington policy events. But that may be changing. Last Monday, for the first time ever, developmental biologists sat down to a lesson in legislative affairs 101--a workshop presented at the 58th annual meeting of the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "How the legislative process works is something they [scientists] have to understand," says Ida Chow, executive director for the society.

Chow began the workshop by explaining that the society was not only interested in educating Capitol Hill policy-makers but also educating their own members about the legislative process. She then introduced the workshop's instructor, Michael Stephens, vice president of the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates Inc.

"When Ida asked me to come down," Stephens said in his opening remarks, "we talked about combining several different goals in my presentation." The first he said, "is to orient you to what's going on in Washington in the legislative arena that's important for biomedical research. In particular, the efforts to get a lot more resources, i.e., money for biomedical research." The second goal he said, is to talk about or at least introduce, "a particularly interesting issue to you," which may be debated in the legislative arena--the issue of whether or not federal funding should be restricted for cloning and stem cell research. And, more broadly, whether or not restrictions should be placed on that research beyond that which is funded with federal money. Finally, said Stephens, "Ida asked if I would talk a little bit about how you all can interact with the legislative process and with the political process for the benefit of science and for your own research. So I'll introduce some of the ways I think you can be a part of the policy debate."

Stephens launched into his talk by explaining that one of the prime legislative issues for the science advocacy community is funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The goal is to double funding for the NIH over a 5-year period, which began in 1998. They have had some success since the NIH budget has gone from $13.6 billion to $15.6 billion in 1 year. Stephens said that he was "optimistic that in the end NIH and biomedical research would be on the short list of programs that get [budget] increases," but he added there are a few downsides because the president's support of NIH is lukewarm compared to that of Congress. In addition, he said science advocacy lost a major supporter when House Speaker Newt Gingrich departed.

Despite the fact that the outlook for biomedical research funding looks good, "we are worried," said Stephens, "as we move forward in this aggressive effort to get more money that there could be restrictions put on federal funding of science. Stem cells and cloning is only the latest version of that."

So, said Stephens, when the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) conducts advocacy it really has three goals:

  • maximize the amount of money available from the federal government to support science

  • minimize the legislative/executive branch interference in science

  • encourage the scientists play a role in the fundamental debate about how federal science policy should be carried out.

"The last part of that," Stephens said to the crowd, "is where I think you all can play a role if you really want to do it."

Stephens explained that scientists can come forward and talk with their congressmen and with the staff of congressional committees "about the excitement that your science generates for human health."

People on Capitol Hill, he added, are anxious to get the input of the working scientists. "They understand," he assured the audience, "that you are not policy experts, that you're not legislative experts, and that you depend on the flow of federal money to support science."

Talking to people in Washington, D.C., said Stephens, is not a complicated thing to do. There are people in Washington who can help you set up appointments.

Stephens closed his workshop on a cautionary note by addressing the legislative issues surrounding stem cell research: "I do want to bring to your attention to the difficulty, and to a certain extent the risk, which this research represents to overall advocacy if it's not handled properly."

He added, "I do not want to discourage you in any way from expressing your support for federal funding of stem cell research, of cloning research to the extent that it's appropriate to do so, but I do want to encourage you to do so in a respectful manner with people who have other points of view. Because, in the end, whether there will or will not be federal restrictions on this science will be determined by the people in the middle. And if we are overly aggressive and say, 'Fund this at all costs. This is science. The politicians should get out of the way,' those people in the middle will be very, very uncomfortable with the idea of creating human embryos which will be destroyed in order to produce material for science." So, finished Stephens, "that's sort of my warning. To deal with this very carefully."

And there ended the policy lesson. "It was interesting," said one graduate student, "because it was something I was completely unfamiliar with."

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