By Daniel Wilson | Carnegie Mellon University
Most students graduating with Ph.D.s in the life sciences and planning to work in industry probably don’t pay a whole lot of attention to how U.S. lawmakers’ budget negotiations are going. But many found out the hard way during the recent government shutdown that, indeed, their work and livelihoods can be put in jeopardy when Congress and the president are at an impasse.
Amber Lucas was one of the young scientists affected. Lucas was wrapping up her Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh when federal budget negotiations broke down in late December. After her Jan. 7 graduation, Lucas planned to work full time for Impact Proteomics, the startup that she co-founded last year with her doctoral adviser, Jonathan Minden.
But those plans were put on hold when the shutdown began Dec. 22 after President Donald Trump declared that he would not sign any appropriations bill that did not include funding for construction of a wall on the nation’s southern border.
Almost a quarter of the government was affected by the shutdown, with essential personnel working for free and the rest furloughed. Many federal agencies and units were essentially shuttered, while others were just limping along.
The National Science Foundation was forced to halt all activities, including distribution of grant money, some of which had been slated for Lucas’ startup.
“I’ve been preparing to start this company since I started my Ph.D.,” Lucas said. “My adviser had been thinking about this project for 12 years. After we received word that we had been awarded the NSF grant, we made all of our plans around it. Everything was at stake.”
I’m an alumnus of the Advocacy Training Program by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and I know that scientists have a strong but often underutilized voice in politics.
As the shutdown continued, I grew increasingly concerned about scientists like Lucas. I wanted to encourage my colleagues to make their legislators aware of stories like hers.
Having learned during the ATP that the one of the best ways to get lawmakers’ attention is to send them hand-written letters, I decided to organize an advocacy event at Carnegie Mellon.
On Jan. 23rd, I stationed myself in a common space and encouraged faculty and graduate students to take five to 10 minutes to write postcards to their federal lawmakers.
After a couple short hours, eight Ph.D. students and seven faculty members had written a total of 30 postcards to U.S. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Penn., and Pat Toomey, R-Penn., and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn.
Lucas wrote her story to all three.
So did Stephanie Biedka, a graduate student on track to complete her Ph.D. this month and to become Impact Proteomics’ first official hire.
“It was extremely frustrating,” Biedka says of the shutdown. “My future employer had no money, and I had no idea if I was going to have a job and thought I might have to put my life on hold.”
Lasting effects and lessons
By the time the shutdown ended Jan. 25, almost $140 million in NSF grants had not been awarded. Impact Proteomics was one of many fledgling companies put in limbo.
“It was not a vacation for us,” Lucas said. “Our company has competitors. Now we are behind after postponing travels to meet with potential customers and partners and delaying ordering supplies we need to work.”
Biomedical researchers are well respected across all of Congress, yet many scientists never communicate with their representatives.
One major goal I had for the postcard-writing campaign was to motivate scientists to take action when it comes to policy issues, especially ones that affect the scientific community.
Members of ASBMB can use the society’s advocacy toolkit to mobilize their own departments and stand up for what scientists need.
As the campaign I organized demonstrated, all it takes is stories and stamps.
Daniel Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University.