Making Scientific Advocacy Personal
Advocating on behalf of bioscience and biomedical research with the U.S. Congress can be an opportunity for scientists to share their stories about their own research and discoveries with key decision makers, said Patricia L. Morris, MS, PhD, who recently served as FASEB President (2021-2022).
“I think it’s important for every scientist and researcher to get out and talk about their research, especially with members of Congress and congressional staffers,” said Morris, who has participated in 15 FASEB Capitol Hill Days. “We need to make it personal. We need to put anecdotes and factual information in front of them in order for them to better understand the research enterprise in the United States.”
A molecular endocrinologist and pharmacologist, Morris said she always focuses on sharing evidence-based facts about the importance of funding, but she also feels it is important to share more of her own story, such as how she became a senior scientist and the vital role grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) played in helping her advance her science.
During congressional conversations, she concentrates on the critical importance of the sustainability of federal funding and policies. As someone who has headed her own laboratory for 33 years, Morris knows that laboratories need sustained funding over time to maintain efficiency and staffing, embrace new technologies, as well as to offset scientific product inflation. “You don’t successfully complete research in the short term,” she said. “We are doing experiments at wet-bench labs over the long term, and there is a high level of products and essential equipment that we need over time to ensure the rigor and reproducibility of our research.”
When attending a Capitol Hill Day, Morris believes it’s essential that scientists do their homework. Fruitful advocacy is built on gaining a deeper understanding of the issues those members of Congress care about, and scientists should ideally review the members’ voting records and their interests to glean those insights.
Morris said one of the misconceptions she often comes across when advocating for science funding is that science can respond overnight to new crises. Instead, she suggested that “science doesn’t turn on a dime.” She said the coronavirus vaccines are a good example, noting that research that was funded 30 years ago built the cornerstones of molecular and cellular biology that were leveraged to complete the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We need to think about how to impart how important sustainability is and how important the training of students and very skillful technical people is to advance the science that got us the coronavirus vaccine,” Morris said, adding the same is true for building a qualified and reliable team to address other infectious diseases, cancer prevention and reproductive health concerns.
Morris said another common misconception is the general public’s failure to appreciate how research funding compounds. “They don’t fully understand that for every $1 that goes into research funding you get $4 out in terms of benefits to our nation’s health and economy and the training of the next generation of scientists,” she said.
Currently, Morris is a guest investigator at The Rockefeller University, a senior scientist with Chromocell Biotech, and a senior scientist with the Research Foundation to Cure AIDS. She is a member of several FASEB’s societies—American Society for Pharmacology and Therapeutics, the Endocrine Society, Society for Developmental Biology, and the Society for the Study of Reproduction.
Morris believes it’s important for early-stage investigators to participate in FASEB events such as Capitol Hill Day because members of Congress may not understand how critical early funding is for young researchers to advance their professional careers. “Early-stage investigators can tell them about their struggles, their hurdles, what milestones they’ve met in their careers and how their research training has enhanced their careers,” she said. “A more established person can do the 30,000-foot view, and early-stage investigators can talk about embracing the joy of doing science research.”