Adventures on the Hill

Last week, I had the privilege to spend several days in Washington DC as a graduate student representative of ESA. Along with biologists from several other organizations, we met with congressional staffers to advocate for the expansion of several federal programs that fund non-medical life science research in the 2008 budget. It was my first experience navigating the marbled halls of Capitol Hill, and although I didn’t come away with pockets full of research money (which was my secret motive for going), the trip was eye-opening on several levels.

For an ecologist-in-training, it was sobering to learn more about the current state of funding for biology research and the attitudes of congressional offices towards this research. While grant rejections serve as a reminder that there are many ecologists but little money, interacting with congressional offices expanded my awareness of how fickle the appropriations and funding process is to a higher level. The federal government will spend about $2.8 trillion in 2007, $608million of which goes to the BIO directorate at NSF. In our meetings with congressional staffers, we asked that they support a 7% increase in funding for the BIO directorate this coming year, a request which would add a modest $17.6million to the pot. The abstractness of these numbers notwithstanding, the sobering part as a grad student is that biology will receive smaller increases (about half as much, percentage-wise) in funding than physical sciences and engineering. What chances do start-up ecologists like myself have of securing research money if this increasingly competitive funding atmosphere continues?

On a more positive note, the process of meeting with congressional staffers helped sharpen my own justifications for funding ecology research on a large scale. I don’t think most ecologists (or at least myself) think often enough about the over-arching contribution that our field makes to those who fund us: the American tax-payers. With this in mind, we met with one or two staffers in each office with expertise in science, technology, environment and/or agriculture policy. In most meetings, we had only a few minutes to communicate our basic message: that basic ecological research represents an extremely important investment for the coming century, yet it has been basically flat-funded over the last several years. We spent a portion of each meeting pointing out specific examples where ecologists have made scientific contributions in the respective offices’ states – in New Hampshire offices, I talked about the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest and its fundamental involvement in the development of watershed and ecosystem sciences, as well as its role in exposing the effects of acid rain on Northern forests. In Massachusetts offices, Robert Buchsbaum spoke about Plum Island LTER site, while Kyle Brown, a graduate student in Harvard’s biology program, discussed his research on the evolution of drug-resistance in bacteria which, as basic molecular investigation, does not fall under NIH’s funding radar. In case these ‘science-based’ arguments didn’t work, we also starved ourselves the week before to look the part of beleaguered under-funded grad students. A little sympathy never hurts.

My team visited a total of eight congressional offices on Thursday. We met with science staffers from all Senate offices and three House offices from New Hampshire and Massachusetts . Kyle Brown, a fellow Coloradoan, and I visited Rep. Mark Udall’s office (D-CO). Rep. Udall is a big supporter of environmental and science issues, and his science staffer (Wendy Adams, an ESA member) did not take much convincing. In contrast, Sen. Sununu’s office (R-NH) also supports general increases in science and technology funding, but opposed our suggestion that he support the BIO directorate in particular. One of the highlights of the event was running into Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in the hall. We only had his ear for a few minutes, but he picked up on the conversation very quickly and told us that he had ‘deep pockets.’

Perhaps it’s a bit naïve, but I think our message was generally well-received — most science staffers seemed unaware of the difference between funding increases for BIO and other NSF directorates, and several are on sub-committees where decisions about science funding are being made. It’s encouraging to know that ESA has a more knowledgeable and permanent presence in Washington , and will be following up on some of our meetings. Nadine and the rest of the policy team certainly did a great job organizing this big event and deserve a lot of credit if something positive happens for ecology funding in the 2008 budget.

On a personal level, I really enjoyed the experience and found Washington to be an exciting, though over-dressed, place to spend a few days.

Contributed by Tom Morrison, Dartmouth graduate student and winner of the ESA Graduate Student Policy Award

Author: Christine Buckley

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