ASCB President Ruth Lehmann invited Holly Goodson, chair of ASCB’s Public Policy Committee, to be the guest author for this issue’s President’s Column.
The ASCB Public Policy Committee (PPC) works on behalf of the ASCB community to increase support for scientific research, communicate with funders and policymakers about relevant issues, and provide encouragement, information, and training to members who would like to engage in their own advocacy efforts. There are many ways to advocate for science. Approaches to advocating for the biomedical community as a whole range from visiting with your local members of Congress to convey to them how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to your lab impacts the local community to simply identifying yourself as a scientist to other daycare/soccer/dog park parents, thus helping to change their perception of what a scientist looks like and giving you the opportunity to hear their interests and concerns. However, science advocacy can also be more personal. The purpose of this column is to discuss how to advocate for yourself to help mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on your research and career.
Impact of COVID-19 on the Scientific Community
Thankfully the COVID-19 pandemic is entering a new phase in the United States. However, even after the virus recedes, the effects on the ASCB community will linger in forms including lost productivity, lost funding, lost personnel, and lost opportunities. The most severely impacted are often trainees and young faculty—the future of the scientific community. What can and should be done to ameliorate the situation?
People with the ability to fix problems can’t make progress until they know that the problems exist. Thus, a key first step is to communicate the challenges you are experiencing. But to whom? And what if you are worried that discussing your difficulties might cause further negative impact? One approach is to tell the PPC and let us convey your concerns to the powers that be. To facilitate this process, we have put together an online survey to collect information about the effects of COVID-19 on the ASCB community. Please provide your story by filing out this anonymous survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/6RS86GS. You may doubt that one person’s story could be useful, but personal stories can have remarkable ability to influence policymakers at any level. In summation, a series of such stories speaking in concert can be powerful indeed. Members of Congress regularly tell us that individual stories are as or more worthwhile to them than data. So, please send us your stories!
What Else Can You Do to Advocate for Yourself in the Time of COVID-19?
If you are a PI, one major concern may be grants that are coming to an end without the productivity expected for renewal. The ASCB PPC has been working with other groups including the Coalition for the Life Sciences to advocate for increased funding to make up for lost productivity. Much more work needs to be done in this arena; the survey mentioned above will help provide data to argue for more general solutions. However, in the absence (as yet) of funding explicitly for this purpose, program directors at both NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have stressed that faculty needing assistance should contact their program directors, who will make decisions about bridge funding and/or funding supplements on a case-by-case basis. This case-by-case approach is far from ideal, in part because it seems likely that there is far too little money to fulfill the need. However, program directors are telling us that as yet, few people have requested support. Thus, if you think you might have a justified need, talk with them! Remember: The most certain way to ensure that you don’t get anything is to not ask for it!
If you are a grad student and are concerned about meeting deadlines or other program-specific concerns, talk with your Director of Graduate Studies (or similar administrator). Of course, your advisor would be the normal “go-to” person, but advisors may not be up to date on your university’s COVID-19-related accommodations. If you aren’t happy with what you hear initially, it might be worthwhile to work through your local graduate student organization to find out if there is simply an information gap or whether your university still needs to enact the necessary changes. For example, many universities are granting blanket extensions to typical graduate school–related deadlines, and many universities are providing varied types of funding support on a case-by-case basis. Also, as with PIs, if you happen to have your own external funding source, talking with your program director could potentially be useful.
The situation for postdocs is much more varied than for either PIs or grad students, and it can be much more difficult because of the combined pressure of this career stage and the fact that many postdocs have families. First, if you have your own funding, check with your program director to see if there might be an option for a COVID-19–related fellowship extension. If instead you are funded directly through the lab, have a discussion with your PI to see whether it might make sense for them to have a discussion with their program director. Alternatively (or in addition), check with your university to see if there might be any local support options, either directly to you as a postdoc or through your mentor. Finally, some funding agencies have started announcing more explicit support for postdocs. For example, the NSF has announced “Supplemental Funding for Postdoctoral Researchers to Mitigate COVID-19 Impacts on Research Career Progression.” However, because this funding is only a supplement to existing NSF grants to support a new postdoc for two years or an existing postdoc for one, it is not accessible to everyone. Because postdocs seem likely to be most impacted by COVID-19, and because the array of resources presently available to postdocs seems particularly insufficient, we are especially interested in survey submissions from postdocs.
What if you are a recent graduate but were not able to get into grad school because of a lack of research experience? One of the best things you could do to help yourself is try to gain some research experience this year. While some labs are struggling to pay the people they have, others are struggling to fill positions, so this can actually be a good time to find a one-year post-bac research position. In addition, the NSF has just announced a program that might help you: www.nsf.gov/pubs/2021/nsf21085/nsf21085.jsp?org=NSF. The purpose of this funding mechanism is to help students like you get research experience. To take advantage of this opportunity, you will need to find a faculty member who has an active NSF award, would be willing to mentor you, and will be willing to apply for supplemental funding to support your research experience.
What If You Want to Engage in Advocacy More Generally?
As vaccinations expand and institutions open, you should think about inviting one or more of your local Congress members to see your lab. For tips on how to plan and organize a successful visit, see www.ascb.org/
science-policy-public-outreach/advocacy-policy/tour-lab-member-of-congress. If arranging a personal visit to your lab sounds daunting, invite your representatives to a public-facing event such as “Research Day” at your cancer center or other research institute. This can be an effective and relatively low-effort way to have multiple faculty engage with the relevant members of Congress.
ASCB hopes to be able to have another in-person Hill Day connected with the 2022 Cell Bio meeting in Washington, DC. Just weeks before the world shut down, ASCB held its largest Hill Day ever as part of the 2019 ASCB Annual Meeting.
Look to the Advocacy Toolbox (www.ascb.org/science-policy-public-outreach/advocacy-policy/science-policy-advocacy-outreach) for ideas and also one-page tips on aspects of advocacy. ASCB members should always feel free to reach out to members of the Public Policy Committee and Kevin Wilson (Kwilson@ascb.org), ASCB’s Director of Public Policy, for advice and suggestions on any advocacy activities you are interested in.
About the Author:
Holly Goodson is professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame.