Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Attention Cancer Researchers – Make Some Noise!!!

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By: Bethanie Morrison

photo credit: afagen via photopin cc

photo credit: afagen via photopin cc

This past week the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) was held in San Diego, California. An estimated 18,000 international researchers, patient advocates, and other professionals in the cancer field were scheduled to be in attendance, making this meeting the premier cancer research event of the year. In addition to presentations of the most exciting basic, translational and clinical research discoveries, the AACR always includes sessions on health, science and regulatory policy. The first of these sessions on the schedule was titled, “NIH and NCI Funding: How the AACR and Our Partners are Taking a Stand against the Decades-long Decline in Federal Funding for Research and Development.” Based on the fact that 80% of the annual NIH budget supports research done at universities and other research institutions, one might expect that a session talking about a decline in federal funding for NIH would draw a significant percentage of meeting goers to attend. Unfortunately this was not the case. Out of the 18,000 projected to be in attendance, and the good majority of them being funded by NIH/NCI, only 40 people showed interest in what is being done to slow or even reverse the decline in federally funded research.

President Barack Obama’s proposed NIH budget for FY2015 is a “meager” $30.2 billion, an almost 1% increase from FY2014 but a number that still falls short of pre-sequestration funding levels1. The current funding level for the NCI is $4.923 billion, with a projected increase to $4.9302. According to the NIH Biomedical Research and Development Price Index3, which calculates purchasing power, the cost of doing research is expected to rise by 2.9% in FY2015. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, has recently been quoted as stating that while competitiveness for NIH grants has increased over the years, “for cancer research, it’s even more competitive. Less than 14 percent of cancer grant proposals get funded,” a situation Collins said is “demoralizing” and “unhealthy3.” So what can we, as researchers, do to influence Congress to fund the research that has and will continue to save lives?

One of the panelists at the meeting session was former Congressman Brian Bilbray, a Republican who spent years representing the San Diego area including its many biotech, pharmaceutical and other research institutions. Rep. Bilbray asked the small audience to remember the 1980s and 1990s, even the early 2000s when Congress made a huge push to fund AIDS research. Why? “Because the AIDS activists were in our faces!” said Rep. Bilbray with much enthusiasm. He went on to suggest that we, as cancer researchers, be a bit less “refined and polite” and fight for our cause the way AIDS advocates and researchers did in earlier years. “It worked for them,” he continued, “and today AIDS is no longer a death sentence, but a treatable disease.”

Congressman Bilbray also had suggestions for ways to advocate for research funding from both sides of the aisle. He made the excellent point that since both parties are coming from different angles, they cannot be approached with the same rationale or they will never meet in the middle. According to Rep. Bilbray, the Republicans are mostly concerned with how big business and job creation are affected by government spending and lack of privatization, so we must remind them that without the basic research funded by the federal government, big business has nothing to sell. They do not have the time to spend doing the basic research necessary to come up with the next best target and to do all of the leg work required to make research findings accepted among the scientific community. The federally funded researchers are the ones “planting the seed for the next great miracle.”   The Democrats are concerned primarily with patient outcomes and the university research community. For them, big business and the regulatory policies put in place by the FDA are major hindrances to scientific discovery and treatments for very sick people. They must be reminded that without big business and the FDA, none of the science done in universities will ever be translated to actual therapeutics or biologics that can be safely used to better human life. In short, it is not just about research or job creation, but about saving peoples’ lives.

The final speaker from the session was George Weiner, the Vice Chair of AACR Policy and Public Affairs from the University of Iowa who gave a view of advocacy from the side of the researcher. He listed reasons he has been given for why we do not get involved in advocating for our own causes. Those reasons included, “everyone already knows that cancer research is important,” “research is too complex to explain,” “tried advocacy, look what good it did,” “I don’t go to DC very often,” and “not my job.” His response to each point can be summed up by saying that nothing will be accomplished if we do not do everything we have the power to do to make cancer research a priority in Congress. Get personal with people who make decisions by using real life examples, invite legislators to your lab and pair up with patients and their advocates. Remember that advocacy may seem like it’s not working, but it will bend the curve. Without money, researchers really have no mission. Research gets nowhere without big business, and big business has nothing without research. Regulatory policy must be revamped and the FDA needs to be more of a team player. These are ways to get researchers involved.

One final shocking fact that I learned in this session was that only 9% of the general population knows what the NIH is or about its main function. Without constituents pushing for regulatory policy reform or funding for the NIH, why would any legislator make it a priority on their already full agenda? Letting the world know what we do so that they will fund the effort IS part of our job.



1. Lauren Morello, Jessica Morrison, Sara Reardon, Jeff Tollefson, Alexandra Witze and Nature magazine. “Flat Budgets for NIH and NSF in Obama’s 2015 Plan.” Scientific American. March 2014.

2. Congressional Justification for FY2015 Presidential Budget. National Cancer Institute – Office of Budget and Finance. March 2014.

3. BiomedicalResearch and Development Price Index (BRDPI). National Institutes of Health – Office of Director – Office of Budget. March 2014.

4. Tracey Jan. “Cancer science leans more on industry funds.” The Boston Globe. March 9, 2014.



Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 12, 2014 at 6:15 pm

Posted in Essays

Tagged with , ,

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