The critical role of coalitions in life science advocacy

I have lived and worked in Washington, DC, my entire life. If there are two words I am familiar with they are “funding” and “lobbying.” As a student with a major in the life sciences, I’ve learned about research, studies, grants, and support. What I didn’t know was who was involved in this process. A coalition, or a collection of people or organizations with a common interest, would be the ones to lobby for the funding, and members of Congress would be the ones to rule on matters of funding and research. One of these coalitions is the Coalition for the Life Sciences (CLS), of which the American Society for Cell Biology (ACSB) is a member.

Members of the ASCB leadership on Hill Day. (L-R) Jodi Nunnari, Rocio Gomez, Kerry Bloom, Sadie Wignall, Andrew Ewald, Gary Gorbsky, Deepali Bhandari, Bob Goldstein, Julie Theriot, Andrew Murray, Erika Shugart, Rebecca Heald, Janet Iwasa, Sue Jaspersen.

Members of the ASCB leadership on 2018 Hill Day. (L-R) Jodi Nunnari, Rocio Gomez, Kerry Bloom, Sadie Wignall, Andrew Ewald, Gary Gorbsky, Deepali Bhandari, Bob Goldstein, Julie Theriot, Andrew Murray, Erika Shugart, Rebecca Heald, Janet Iwasa, Sue Jaspersen.

The CLS addresses issues in the biomedical field, advocating on behalf of scientists to change policy and obtain research funding. A typical coalition has a formal structure with bylaws or governance guidelines, a dedicated leadership team, and membership dues. A coalition, such as the CLS, will have a broad mandate within a defined mission statement. For example, the CLS’s mission is to foster policies that advance basic biological research. Within this structure, task forces or committees can form to focus on singular, defined tasks. For example, a group of individuals at CLS working on human embryonic stem cell research policy might see a need for a regular meeting to communicate effectively.

The Coalition and Congress

The Coalition for the Life Sciences was formed in 1989 as the Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy. Other members of the Coalition include The Society for Neuroscience, The Genetics Society of America, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Genentech, HudsonAlpha, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Novartis. CLS works with both members of Congress and scientists, providing education as well as acting in an advocate capacity. CLS provides a direct path from biomedical researchers to lawmakers via events such as Capitol Hill Days, at which scientists and researchers have a meet and greet with their congressional delegation, as well as attend a briefing of the Congressional Biomedical Caucus. CLS is primarily interested in securing funds for research, but the Coalition does speak on behalf of the scientific community as well.

“It’s more along the lines of asking for support and funding,” said CLS Director Lynn Marquis. “We do talk on behalf of scientists across scientific disciplines and across career tracks. We advocate for federal policies that advance science and support scientists.”

I asked Marquis what it was like to speak before Congress, especially about a matter such as biomedical research, which can be controversial, depending on the subject. She told me that although she currently leaves speaking before Congress to the CLS board members, she occasionally takes office meetings with members of Congress or their staff. She started her career as a congressional intern. When she does speak with members of Congress, she said she carries the same feelings of respect she felt for the first Senator she worked for (Senator William Cohen, R-ME, 1979–1997). I can appreciate that; I felt the same way the first time I met former FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Small, But Mighty

The mission of a smaller, more informal coalition is to advocate on behalf of a single issue. It could work on either a short- or long-term basis. There wouldn’t be a need for a board or any of the formalities that come along with forming a larger, broader coalition such as CLS.

In the late 1990s, ASCB members found that human embryonic stem cell research was becoming an important issue. I know that this is a difficult issue for a lot of reasons, politically, and policy keeps changing constantly. Human embryonic stem cell research definitely needs a focused advocate. Fortunately, the ASCB was one of the founding members of the larger coalition formed to specifically work on this issue in 2001.

“As part of my work with the stem cell coalition, I spent a huge amount of time with this issue, beginning with raising awareness on the Hill, getting bills written and then passed, and trying to get presidential vetoes overridden,” said Kevin Wilson, ASCB’s Director of Public Policy and Media Relations.

As an outsider on this, I assumed you had to fight every time there is a new administration in the White House. Wilson says that the stem cell coalition worked on the stem cell policy issues all the way to the Supreme Court, which is empowering, impressive, and shows incredible dedication to not only biomedical research and the life sciences at a high-level but also toward the scientists who work hard to improve our quality of life.

Advocacy and Education

I think that the most important part of the CLS mission is education. Without providing lawmakers with the information they need to decide on funding approvals, it would seem difficult for them to make that choice. From the opioid epidemic to a better flu vaccine, the underlying causes of ALS and Alzheimer’s, to the support for studying medical treatment with cannabinoids, the CLS and other coalitions in biomedical research are on the front lines supporting scientists and educating those who can make their efforts possible.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.


About the Author:

Beth is working on her BS in Psychology at University of Maryland University College and is the summer writing intern at the American Society for Cell Biology. Email:

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