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One U.S. Researcher's Effort to Fight Budget Cuts Leaves Bitter Taste ... And a Sore Arm

In the trenches. Stephen Meltzer fell just short of his goal on a petition to boost NIH funding.

Courtesy of Stephen Meltzer and Johns Hopkins University

Frightened by the possibility of massive cuts to domestic spending starting next month, U.S. scientific societies have spent months urging their members to help make the case for federally funded research.

One physician-scientist who heeded the call is Stephen Meltzer, a gastroenterologist and cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. But after devoting 2 months to gathering signatures for an electronic petition—and sending out enough e-mails to develop a severe case of tendonitis in his right arm—Meltzer says he's been treated like a pariah by his scientific peers. In fact, he harbors serious doubts about the community's willingness to support grassroots lobbying efforts like his.

The story begins in February, when Meltzer participated in a teleconference with White House science officials. The call was designed to whip up support among the research community for the 2013 budget that President Barack Obama had just submitted to Congress. (It's still pending.) And Meltzer, whose research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for 3 decades, was eager to hear from presidential science adviser John Holdren.

Meltzer already knew that NIH's budget was slated to shrink by $2.5 billion starting next month unless Congress and the White House find a way to avoid the mandatory, across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, that are mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act. And he was troubled by the fact that Obama had requested flat funding for NIH in line with the overall austerity budget that the law required.

But what finally turned Meltzer into a political activist was the answer from Holdren to a complaint from another listener that White House officials had ignored NIH in their summary of the president's science priorities. "He said, 'Don't worry about NIH. It'll do just fine,' " Meltzer recalls. "And I thought, 'Is that what this guy says when he meets with the president?' He just doesn't understand how bad things are."

What Holdren actually said, according to several people who attended the meeting, is that, with a $31 billion budget, NIH will continue to be the dominant federal player in biomedical research. Participants said Holdren noted that the request is smaller than he would have liked to see but that the administration is still strongly committed to advancing biomedical research.

But Meltzer, who regarded that response as inadequate, decided that NIH needed more passionate defenders. Taking advantage of a White House Web site called We the People that invites petitions on any subject (94,000 to date), Meltzer launched a plea to boost NIH's budget to $33 billion from the current $30.7 billion. Working with Morgan Giddings, a computational biologist and a former academic who now runs a business offering colleagues tips on how to improve their grant-writing skills, the two began recruiting signers by contacting colleagues, other academics, and every professional society and scientific organization to which they belonged or that they thought might be willing to help. And that's when Meltzer discovered that his efforts were not exactly welcomed by those he regarded as kindred spirits.

"The scientific community is very competitive and fractured," he says. "People who do [political advocacy] full-time think you're stealing their glory. Or they tell you, 'You don't know what you're doing.' That was one of the most frustrating lessons I learned."

One big problem, Meltzer discovered, is that his funding target for NIH was $1 billion higher than the figure being pushed by a coalition of scientific organizations. "That may not seem like a lot," he says, "but a billion dollars would make a huge difference in the amount of grants that NIH can fund." Those organizations told him that his conflicting message might confuse lawmakers and undermine their campaigns.

Meltzer's goal was to collect 25,000 signatures within 30 days. The White House has promised to respond directly to any petition that achieved that level of success, and Meltzer felt that was the best way to make sure the president knew that NIH needed the additional funding.

But some lobbyists told him that he was naïve to think a pro forma reply from some White House aide would have any impact. And at least one disease advocacy group also said he was misguided. "While the effort is a noble one, there is no meaningful action that could come out of the White House in response to this petition since the president's budget has already come out," its regional grassroots manager wrote him. The organization suggested that Meltzer drop his campaign and throw in with its own electronic petition, directed at Congress, since it has the authority to set annual spending levels for each agency.

Meltzer declined, however, and in the end conducted two petition drives. The first fell only 446 signatures shy of the minimum needed to trigger a White House response. And he is still angry at every organization that refused to circulate his plea to spread the word among its members. He immediately launched a second petition drive, which also came up short.

Those two campaigns filled nearly every waking moment, he says. And they took a heavy toll. "I became obsessed with it," he admits. "I stopped writing an NIH grant [application] I had planned to submit, and I neglected my research. I sent out so many e-mails—probably over 1 million—that I developed tendonitis in my right hand. And it's still very painful for me to use a [computer] mouse."

With sequestration only a few weeks away, Meltzer is not optimistic that NIH's budget will be protected. But he hasn't lost all interest in politics. He's trying to convince liberal commentators on MSNBC to take up NIH's cause. And last Wednesday Meltzer participated in another White House call-in with Holdren seeking the research community's support for the president's campaign to tax the wealthiest 2% of citizens and protect domestic programs, including NIH.

Meltzer was stunned when he was the first caller to be chosen during the question-and-answer period. "Why aren't we hearing more about the impact of these cuts on NIH?" Meltzer asked Holdren. He says Holdren answered that it was better to avoid the "gory details" and work to prevent sequestration from going into effect.

But Meltzer is preparing for the worst. "I'm one of the 49%" of the public who don't think Congress and the White House will succeed, he says.