The next pivotal event took place in 1990 when ASCB and ASBMB decided to hire a professional to help us educate Congress. That decision was a huge departure from anything our societies had done before. ASCB President-Elect Marc Kirschner and ASBMB President Dan Lane organized the search. One candidate, retired Congressman Peter Kyros, stood out from the established Washington, D.C., lobbying firms with a proposal that our societies should sponsor a Biomedical Research Caucus in Congress for scientists to explain their work and its value for society. The idea was that better information about biomedical research would help Congress justify healthy appropriations for NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other agencies that support fundamental scientific research.
The societies hired Kyros, and Kirschner organized a committee of the sponsoring societies to advise him. The founding members of this Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy (JSC) were the American Association of Anatomists, ASCB, ASBMB, and the Biophysical Society. The group changed its name to the more descriptive Coalition for Life Sciences (CLS) in 2007. ASCB has continuously sponsored JSC/CLS as other member societies have come and gone over the years. Current members are ASBMB, ASCB, the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the Genetics Society of America, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Society for Neuroscience, collectively representing more than 60,000 scientists. Staff members from each society have worked with the CLS leadership to coordinate activities.
JSC/CLS has used three approaches to advocate for the biomedical research community. First, Kyros helped Members of Congress organize the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus (www.coalitionforlifesciences.org/cbrc
) with the goal to increase interest in biomedical research among lawmakers. At the time pundits in Washington predicted that the Caucus would last less than six months, but it is going strong 22 years later and has been called one of the most successful nonpartisan caucuses in the House of Representatives. To date the Caucus has sponsored talks by almost 300 biologists attended largely by congressional staff but also by interested lawmakers and members of the scientific establishment in Washington.
The success of the Caucus can be attributed to outstanding leadership. Kyros's friend Republican Congressman George Gekas from Pennsylvania took the lead in the House and built the group to a steady state of approximately 100 members. The current Cochairs of the Caucus are Brian Bilbray (Republican, California), Rush Holt (Democrat, New Jersey), Jackie Speier (Democrat, California), and Charlie Dent (Republican, Pennsylvania). Over the years the leaders of the Caucus have advocated for biomedical research inside Congress with “Dear Colleague” letters on key issues to their fellow lawmakers. Harold Varmus handpicked scientists to visit Washington until he became NIH Director in 1993. Then Mike Bishop took over as scientific advisor to the Caucus for almost 15 years. Our community has been blessed that these two prominent scientists volunteered their time to make the Caucus a success. Virtually everyone they asked agreed to participate in the Caucus.
In a second approach to advocacy, JSC started a grassroots network of individual biological scientists to advocate for the community by engaging with politicians on scientific issues. We called the network the Congressional Liaison Committee (CLC). We gathered about two thousand participants from the JSC societies. Initially communications were challenging because we had to rely on faxes sent in the middle of the night to keep costs down. All over the country our volunteers would find faxes in their offices the next morning asking them to help with our issues. Communications now flow freely thanks to email and social media.
I learned from my wife's nonpartisan political groups in Maryland that success in advocacy depends on energetic staff to ensure that volunteer members take action, so JSC hired its first staff member, Alec Stone, in the early 1990s. In addition to managing the network, he ramped up CLC activities in a few key states, including North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New York. Mike Bishop and I raised money from institutions in California to hire Michelle Grifka to staff the CLC in the western states for four years in the late 1990s. For the past seven years Lynn Marquis has been doing a superb job as CLS Director. She maintains the CLC membership, organizes the Congressional Caucus events, coordinates the activities of the member societies, organizes visits by groups of biologists to Capital Hill, and represents the coalition as a member of influential policy groups in Washington. About 3600 biologists currently participate in CLC and last year sent more than 6000 letters to Congress. To date, the CLS has sponsored visits to Washington by more than 200 biologists.
Third, JSC/CLC has taken public positions on important issues. The first position was to oppose raising the indirect cost rate on grants. This divisive proposal disappeared for almost two decades but has recently reappeared in even more troubling times for bench scientists. (See recommendation 5 in National Research Council Committee on Research Universities, 2012.) The most important public position from JSC was a pivotal opinion piece by Bishop, Kirschner, and Varmus in Science
proposing that the NIH budget be doubled in five years (Bishop et al., 1993
). Through hard work by many individuals, including Peter Kyros and many organizations, this dream came true between 1998 and 2003, accounting for the current size of the NIH budget.
JSC/CLS has benefited from strong leadership. Kirschner was the energetic, inspirational founding Chair. He established a board including representatives from the participating societies and an equal number of at-large members, who have volunteered their time. Eric Lander, Harold Varmus, and Keith Yamamoto followed Marc as chair of the JSC/CLS Board. In 2009 President Obama named Eric and Harold as Cochairs of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, so our modest volunteer coalition placed two of our leaders as advisors to the White House.
Our mentors in advocacy were Peter Kyros and his colleague Bell Cummins, now both deceased (Washington Post, 2012
). Ex-marine and former Congressman, Peter was a delightful, crusty guy, and Bell was a brilliant lawyer. Although some scientists worried about working with a lobbyist like Peter or found Bell to be a bit too gaudy, these two people poured their hearts and energy into our cause and had an uncanny sense about how to navigate the political system.
ASCB has provided office space and support for JSC/CLS. ASCB Executive Director Elizabeth Marincola provided leadership as JSC Executive Director from 1991 until her departure from ASCB in 2005. Joan Goldberg succeeded Elizabeth as ASCB Executive Director and was a wise voice in CLS affairs. ASCB has been blessed with exceptional executive directors—Dorothea Wilson, Elizabeth Marincola, and Joan Goldberg, all masters at making our volunteer organization work by “leading from behind.” Rather than take personal credit for the success of the Society, they worked tirelessly to help volunteer members do their best and receive credit for work well done. They helped busy scientists by organizing activities, drafting materials, prompting members to meet deadlines, facilitating interactions, managing the society's staff, and helping to build coalitions.