ASBMB’s Advocate Spotlight will highlight the efforts of science advocates to share the importance of biomedical research. If you know someone telling the story of science to legislators to advance science policy, email email@example.com, so that we can consider them.
Jarod Rollins is a postdoctoral fellow at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.
How did you become interested in advocating for science?
Since day one of my postdoctoral research, there has been a strong focus on how small research institutes, like ours, can survive in the current National Institutes of Health funding climate. Over several months and numerous meetings, we explored all sorts of ideas to fund our science. Some were obvious, like applying for privately funded grants and partnering with industry to market applications of our research. Others were more creative, like crowdfunding an experiment. As a new researcher, these discussions about funding made one thing clear to me: Federal science funding in the United States is in a dire situation. However, I didn’t think that there was anything within my power to do to help the situation until the opportunity of participating in the ASBMB Hill Day was presented to me. I jumped on the opportunity to join Hill Day primarily to dispel my ignorance of how our government works to fund basic research. However, the experience turned out to be much more than that.
Tell us about your experience hosting U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, in your lab.
Poliquin and his legislative director, Philip Swartzfager, recently visited our institute to see science funding at work. Poliquin’s platform for election was partly based on reducing the federal deficit through spending cuts, and I wanted to share with him the jobs and innovation that National Institutes of Health funding has fostered in our state and to serve as a constituent resource to interpret and distill scientific research.
I extended the invitation for Poliquin to tour our facilities while meeting with Swartzfager during the ASBMB Hill Day. It is safe to say that without Hill Day the visit may not have materialized.
Our lab is concerned with how to extend longevity in humans. We use the roundworm C. elegans as a genetic model to explore this question. One well-characterized intervention that has been shown to extend lifespan in myriad organisms is dietary restriction, the reduction of calories consumed without malnutrition. During the explanation of our lab’s research on how diet and longevity are connected, Poliquin asked about practical applications of the work in our field. With my adviser, Aric Rogers, we explained the importance of food choice. Good choices are those containing the promising, pro-longevity compound resveratrol, and foods to avoid are sugary drinks that send insulin levels soaring and reduce longevity.
When we offered to show Poliquin our worms, he jumped on the opportunity. He was glued to the microscope. His legislative director didn’t even get a chance to take a peek. In a very short time, we were able to show him that the roundworms have similar symptoms of aging as humans and that we can leverage powerful techniques using fluorescently tagged proteins to assist in determining the function of longevity genes. As the saying goes, seeing is believing.
As important as it was for me and fellow scientists to leave the comfort of our laboratories to experience politics during Hill Day, it is just as important for lawmakers to come to research institutes to appreciate the scientific method. Before Poliquin left, I made sure to thank him for his support of the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill that has already proved science funding is a nonpartisan issue.
What science policy issues are you most concerned about?
Consistent increases in science funding is a simple must. Postdocs like me need to know that the funding will be there to be able to plan our careers. I also believe that there needs to be less government oversight as to what types of research are to receive funding. Let the experts decide that.
Why is it important for graduate students/postdocs to engage in advocacy?
It is important for graduate students and postdocs to become advocates because we have the most to lose from underfunding of science programs. In times of funding crisis, there is the tendency for funding to go to larger, better-established labs, making it hard for early-stage investigators with new ideas to become established. It is also important for graduate students and postdocs to engage in advocacy because we are good at it. We are intimately involved in our research projects, and that makes us passionate about the results. This passion and excitement is contagious and goes a long way toward bridging the gap between lawmakers and scientists.
How do you see yourself continuing to advocate for science in the future?
One of the most important things that I learned from the Hill Day experience was not to be pessimistic about our government. We can indeed elicit change. Every office of every member of Congress from each state or district has staff trained to listen to concerns and respond accordingly. But this system cannot work if citizens like us don’t use it. I think Margret Mead captured my sentiment best by saying “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I plan to continue science advocacy by spreading this message to my fellow scientists and encouraging them, like I have begun to do, to stay informed on funding issues and to contact our representatives by email and phone. Thanks to Hill Day, I have connections to the offices of all of my representatives; I can’t let those go to waste. We need to keep our lawmakers updated on matters that will help America continue innovating.