Researchers and Advocates Gather in Washington, D.C., to Protest Cuts to Biomedical Research

David Malakoff

Thousands of scientists and patient advocates poured into a square in downtown Washington, D.C., today to hold what organizers billed as the largest-ever rally to call for more funding for biomedical research. The event, as reported earlier today with a slideshow on ScienceInsider and held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) with support from over 200 organizations, aimed to draw attention to the 5% cut to the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) $31 billion budget imposed by Congress last month through sequestration as well as the flat growth of NIH's budget over the past decade. "The continued erosion of funding for the most important medical research institute in the world, the National Institutes of Health, must stop," said AACR CEO Margaret Foti.

AACR attendees and others listened for nearly 2 hours in unusually warm April weather as more than a dozen lawmakers, patient advocates, and celebrities spoke in support of NIH. Emcee Cokie Roberts of ABC News and NPR declared that "it could not be a stupider time to cut back on funding for medical research." Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), an ovarian cancer survivor, said that "life-saving cancer research is being cut because of ideology, and that's wrong." Rockefeller University president and former Genentech executive Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he worries most that young people are being discouraged from research careers. "It is possible to ruin our scientific community. If we continue on this path, we will kill the goose that laid the golden egg," he said, drawing cheers.

Clad in white T-shirts and an occasional hot pink boa, rally participants chanted "more progress, more hope, more life." They raised their cell phones with actress Maura Tierney of the TV drama ER to send a mass text message asking Congress to reverse the cuts to NIH.

One of the planned speakers was missing: NIH Director Francis Collins. Although federal employees cannot participate in lobbying activities, Collins was initially going to speak as a private citizen, according to sources, but ultimately cancelled. (NIH spokesperson John Burklow declined to comment on Collins's reasons, saying only: "Dr. Collins wasn't able to attend the rally, however, he is supportive of the participants' efforts to shine a light on the importance of biomedical research.") However, Foti read a message from President Barack Obama, who said that he sent "greetings" and that he too supports "a serious, sustained effort to advance medical research."

Although probably only a few thousand of the 18,000 AACR attendees left the conference center across the street to participate, organizers deemed their event—which included supporters tuning in via YouTube—a success. It was "historic and really unprecedented," Foti said. For a while, tweets with the rally's tag #RallyMedRes were second to only tweets about former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's death, Foti said afterward.