Making sausage and making legislation are not spectator sports but someone has to keep an eye on what's going into the mix. A case in point is the release by the Senate Appropriations Committee last Friday of its version of the bill that will fund the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education for FY15. At first glance, the bill looks like typical Capitol Hill sausage. But look closer. Tucked deep inside the bill are changes that, if they become law, will help NIH scientists attend scientific meetings and reverse a case of unintended consequences. What you are looking at is a big victory for science, for researchers, and for ASCB. Humanity may also benefit.
It began as a quiet Friday on Capitol Hill. May 30 found many members of the Senate back home for a long weekend, meeting with constituents. The House of Representatives had been in session until almost 2:00 am the night before, voting on funding for the departments of Commerce and Justice plus other agencies including the NSF. But then a contingent of ASCB Councilors and leaders arrived. Things soon grew much livelier.
When it comes to policy making in Washington, DC, what does not happen is sometimes as important as what does. Such was the case last month when the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act), which is intended to increase the accountability and transparency of federal spending. Absent from the bill were severe restrictions on the ability of federal scientists to participate in scientific meetings. The ASCB played a key role in dodging this bullet.
Consider it progress but many in Congress are coming around to the idea that the current system for funding the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal science programs isn't working. Getting everyone on the Hill to agree what should be done to protect research funding is another matter. Now, one senator has come up with a daring new idea on how to shelter biomedical research funding from the budgetary hurricanes blowing through both chambers.
It was either serendipity or the anxiety of an entire generation of graduate students coming to a boil, but last fall something triggered an explosion of science advocacy on the Emory University campus in Atlanta. A grad student "advocacy journal club" has sprung to life with 50 members, ambitious plans for organizing more, and a working alliance with the dean and with Emory's Office of Governmental Affairs.
By creating laboratory systems that can accurately model all kinds of normal and diseased human cells, tissues, and even organs, advances in stem cell culturing techniques could open the way for a "new era of human cell biology," Lawrence Goldstein, chair of the ASCB Stem Cell Task Force, told the National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Advisory Council meeting on the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, Friday. "There are tremendous opportunities using stem cell technologies... to advance our understanding of basic biological principles," Goldstein of the University of California, San Diego, told the NIGMS council when presenting the task force's recommendations. "There are some programmatic goals we think will help us get there," he said.
Just when it seemed that the pool of research funding was down to puddles, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced Wednesday a national open competition for 20-25 new HHMI investigators who will be awarded $150 million in new funds over the next five years. All applications are self-nominations and endorsement letters are only required if the candidate becomes a semifinalist.
"Mine!" being among the favorite words of five-year-olds, their parents find themselves remonstrating, over and over "You can't always have things your way." Apparently, this is a lesson lost on most members of Congress.
Contending that no enemy could have devised a system so effective at destroying U.S. science and technology competitiveness as the policies pursued by Congress and state legislatures in "disinvesting" in education and innovation, a former president of Lockheed Martin and longtime presidential science advisor Norman Augustine warned that the U.S. economic engine was in decline in a recent TEDx talk.
Federal scientists, unpack your bags. That's the message from Congress, which for a second time in a matter of weeks passed a bill that would severely limit the ability of federal scientists to attend scientific meetings.