With the potential of more cuts to federal funding for scientific research looming, American Chemical Society members are channeling their concerns and frustrations into political action—and they’re taking their message all the way to Capitol Hill.
“Funding rates are so low now that my colleagues all over the country are struggling to keep their labs afloat. I’m seeing labs close and projects within labs shut down,” said Jonathan Wilker, a professor of chemistry at Purdue University. “As scientists, we need to participate in the federal budget discussions.”
On April 24–25, Wilker and 16 other ACS members traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with their senators and representatives in Congress and voice their concerns about the impact of deep cuts to research funding.
“The number one thing we’re trying to do is ensure predictable and sustained support for federal research,” said Anthony Pitagno, assistant director for advocacy at ACS. “We know that some $1.7 trillion needs to come out of the federal budget in 10 years. We have to present a case as to why the federal government should be supporting scientific research at the level we think is appropriate.”
ACS coordinated the congressional visits as part of its annual Legislative Summit, which was held in conjunction with the 2012 Congressional Visits Day (CVD), organized by the Science-Engineering-Technology Working Group, an informal network of scientific societies, academic institutions, and corporations to which ACS belongs.
CVD, chaired this year by ACS, brought together more than 300 scientists, engineers, educators, and executives representing roughly 80 scientific societies, universities, and trade associations to raise visibility and support for science, engineering, and technology. ACS’s delegation comprised seven members of the ACS Board of Directors and 10 members of the Committee on Chemistry & Public Affairs (CCPA).
“I passionately believe that the voice of the scientific community needs to be heard by politicians,” said CCPA member Hui Cai of San Diego, who is vice president of corporate alliances at WuXi AppTec, a global contract research organization. “Scientific innovation is a key engine that drives the U.S. economy and is vital for our nation’s global competitiveness.”
For many scientists, the first step toward getting involved in the political process is understanding how political decisions affect research funding. “The vast majority of academic research is supported by federal grants,” Wilker said. “Legislators are making decisions on our behalf, so I think it’s incumbent upon us to get in there and be involved in the process.”
Wilker noted that doing advocacy is a long-term investment that doesn’t come with instant gratification. “I’m not expecting a direct return,” he said. “My lab’s not going to be funded any better next week or next year because of this, but I hope the payoff is that legislators have a better appreciation for the impact of innovation and R&D in this country.”
Some ACS members see their role as advisers to legislators, providing them with information to make sound decisions. Former ACS president E. Ann Nalley recalled that after one of her visits to her representative, his office called and asked her to provide scientific data for inclusion in a government report. CCPA member Donna Nelson said several legislators had called on her to provide statistics from her diversity surveys on women and minorities in science and asked her to give two Capitol Hill briefings on her research.
ACS members interested in advocacy can join the Act4Chemistry Network (www.act4chemistry.org), which alerts ACS members to pieces of legislation that may concern them and provides tools for crafting letters to their representatives.
Members can also join their local section’s government affairs committee. ACS is testing a new structure for these committees that will organize them by state rather than local section.
ACS is also planning to launch town hall events where members can interact with representatives in their home states. “Legislators are trying to make connections with their constituents, and it would be a great opportunity for local sections to host an event where ACS members can hear about science policies” that affect them, says ACS Senior Legislative Associate Kathryn L. Verona.
Every effort to connect with legislators helps support science, but all involve a long-term investment by ACS members, says Pitagno. “This is a marathon and not a sprint.”