Author: Student Blog

Science Funding and Politics – Learning How to Play their Game

In this guest post, John Vernon, an undergraduate in the College of Science at Notre Dame, reflects on the lessons he learned about science and policy after a summer in Washington DC.

United States Capitol - west front

By Architect of the Capitol ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This past summer I had the opportunity to work for a science policy consulting firm and get a glimpse into the real world outside of academia. I discovered that a strangely symbiotic partnership exists between scientists and those who create and legislate from Capitol Hill. Many scientists and researchers try to stay out of the political game, but that can make it more difficult, and often frustrating, to get public health projects accomplished. Healthcare policy fuels funding, and navigating the Washington, DC political landscape in order to advocate for important scientific research is definitely not for the timid novice. There is no scarcity of interest groups on the scene, including professional consultants who focus on representing public and global health sectors. But how do they do it, and can you learn to do it for your projects too?

The name of the game is money, and that means proving that your research interests are worth investing in. This affects university research departments that have a critical need for government funding in order to carry on their work.  However, convincing the powers that be about the value of research science is easier said than done.

On the Executive side, the White House has its own Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to help the President in addressing scientific research questions and making judgments regarding new polices and programs. OSTP also forms relationships with the private sector for evaluating potential investments in industry, academia, and other sources.   Researchers who are able to match their areas of interest with those identified as high priority by the government will clear the first hurdle in the funding process.  However, there are multiple agencies that also weigh in on what they think is worthwhile to pursue. They all have the opportunity to influence what will actually happen once the “budgeting game” begins.  The Washington insiders are clearly familiar with this and have a sophisticated level of expertise that scientists frequently lack or loathe. This poses a challenge each spring when all the different government agencies submit their own budget proposals to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  After lots of “horse trading” the final recommendations are given to the President in order to prepare the final budget for Congress to vote on in February of each year. They control the purse strings dictating how the money should be spent, and the allocation of funds is often based on political considerations, as much if not more than proven need.

When there is a dearth of financial resources to go around, the competition within the scientific community heats up.  This rose to new levels when there were drastic budget cuts enacted through sequestration.  For many scientists, sequestration is synonymous with the “Day the World Stood Still”. Prospects for continuing grants, fellowships, and ongoing research projects were drastically compromised.  However, this government process of withholding funds actually began in 2011, and has been a hotly debated topic because of its significant affect on the scientific and research community. For the past 2+ years since Congress passed the Budget Control Act, there have been caps on discretionary funds for Public Health, Environmental Protection, and Law Enforcement.From my perspective as a scientist, it is important to consider the potential consequences that accompany this mandate to reduce funding by over $1 trillion dollars over the next 10 years. What price will society pay for this austerity?

According to a report from the American Public Health Association (APHA), the Department of Health and Human Services faced $3.7 billion in cuts on March 1, 2013.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention specifically saw $35 million in funding cuts, and experts warn that this will reduce our ability to respond in the case of health threats. In addition, the funding reduction for the National Institute of Health was $1.6 billion. This lack of financial support in multiple areas of scientific research will undoubtedly hamper progress and impact the public health of millions.

A recent Huffington Post article, based on more than two-dozen interviews with scientists and academic officials summarized specific examples of the devastating impact that sequestration is having on research projects.  The NIH $29.1 billion budget for the current year seems quite large, but it has dropped from a high of $30.8 billion before sequestration.  There is every indication that circumstances will continue to be less than ideal and funding competition will only intensify. There is a strong argument for being able to make a case to the powers that be why your research makes scientific and practical sense for the public interest.

Thomas Frieden official CDC portrait

Thomas Frieden. By Center for Disease Control [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some scientists have recognized how important it is to become pro-science activists and engage in the legislative process in order to be successful in advancing their cause in this ever changing, and politically driven climate. On April 19, 2013 Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Human Rights, and International Organizations. He got the attention of the policymakers because he discussed a rising concern over the overuse of antibiotics, while also highlighting the noticeable void of research into this area. Dr. Frieden stressed the need for research and preventive treatment citing the facts that  diseases like MRSA and the H7N9 influenza are becoming a major health concern.

By introducing a plan developed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to protect against health threats, and reinforce containment and border protection, Dr. Frieden moved the conversation into a science policy discussion. His presentation was a plea for additional funds to combat growing antimicrobial resistance, and emerging threats including salmonella and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. Congressional Hearings in May 2013 also identified other domestic and global health concerns that are preventable as long as there continues to be adequate research funding and support. This is the collaborative relationship that will promote the best science and result in the most effective public health policy.

There are several organizations worth knowing about if you want help with getting support for science initiatives. The Coalition for Life Sciences (CLS) is the conglomerate of six different nonprofit organizations focused on supporting public policy, and advancing life science research and its many applications. One particularly well known, and impressive group that has a strong presence in Washington, D.C. is the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This organization recognizes the importance of communicating science and technology, and believes that currently the needs for credible and objective information are not adequately fulfilled.  As a solution, in 1973 they developed a special Fellowship Program with just seven Fellows, and now they fund over 250 annually. They include recent PhD graduates and accomplished scientists with many years in education and industry. Their mission is to link policy and science, while creating an association of knowledgeable leaders who understand both fields, and can provide solutions to policymakers who make government decisions. The main program areas they cover are security and development, energy and the environment, health and education, big data, and global health. I have personally spoken with AAAS fellows about how they view their role in Congress, and the consensus is that the political process is very slow but thorough and policy decisions can be influenced with sound scientific input.         

Now more than ever, it is imperative that the scientific community learns to work collaboratively with policymakers on establishing a platform for funding significant research initiatives. In order to achieve this objective, the first strategy is to build credibility and develop relationships with policymakers, rather than simply trying to disseminate information, when they may not be receptive. As research scientists, we need to remember to talk in a language that is understandable to non-scientists, and includes practical applications as well.  The “KISS (Keep it Simple Scientists) Formula” is a good model to follow in order for research to be presented in a format that is user-friendly for the policy makers, regardless of their background, training, or experience.  They are charged with a very important job, and will be better able to do it effectively if they have the support of scientific data and professional expertise. Another strategy is to make sure your information tells a story and includes some reference to a problem or concern to which many people can relate. Although certain areas of public and global health may not get a lot of media attention, lives are at stake and the potential contributions from scientific developments is extremely important both domestically and throughout the world.

As members of a new breed of young scientists, we need to encourage and empower one another.  We must be ready to rise to the challenge and become involved in the debate in order to advocate for those initiatives we believe need to be pursued. Science must grow beyond the lab, and I believe this will only happen if we are part of the solution. We must  be willing to get out of our comfort zones and embrace the strategies that work well in the public policy arena in order to get the really important scientific messages out.  It is our time to step up and make a real difference in the world of public and global health.

2013-12-15 11.02.48 pmJohn Vernon is a senior Science Pre-Professional and Psychology double major at the University of Notre Dame. He has been involved in multiple research labs related to the study of Autism as well as concussions. Next year, John will be pursuing a Masters of Science at Notre Dame in Scientific Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Sources:

1.     Olsen, KL, Gilbert L. Science Policy Ethics Guiding Science Through Regulation of Research and Funding [PowerPoint]. Notre Dame, IN. College of Science Science Technology Policy Seminar; 2013.

2.     Sequestration ushers in a dark age for science in America. Huffington Post Website. Accessed August 20, 2013

3.     Sequestration’s impact on public health funding. The American Public Helath Association Web site. Accessed August 20, 2013.

4.     Frieden TR. Meeting the Challenge of Drug-Resistant Diseases in Developing Countries.  Washington, DC: The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Human Rights, & International Organizations; 2013.

5.      Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. The AAAS Fellowships Web site. Accessed August 20, 2013.

6.     Bogenschneider KP, Little OM.  Advancing Evidence Based Policy: Getting Your Research Across To Policymakers. [PowerPoint]  Honolulu, HI. American Psychological Association Conference; 2013.

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Why Every Science Student Should Attend a Conference


Illustration by Yoo Jung Kim

This is a guest post by Dartmouth senior Yoo Jung Kim. 

Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS)–the world’s largest general scientific society–held its annual meeting in Chicago. Among other globally recognized science conferences, the AAAS general meeting is unique in that it represents a broad spectrum of the sciences:  the conference hosts over 150 scientific symposia with topics ranging from science to technology to education to policy. AAAS also offers a wide range of opportunities that it offers to undergraduate students.

“At the Annual Meeting Student Poster Competition, undergraduate and graduate students present their research to other attendees, and scientists from many different fields provide feedback and advice,” said Tiffany Lohwater, the Director of Meetings and Public Engagement at the AAAS.

On top of the deeply discounted trainee registration rate, student attendees can take advantage of career development workshops and networking opportunities. The Student Poster Competition, featuring around 160 to 180 students presenting their research.

According to Michelle Oberoi, a junior at Univerity of California Irvine who won the best poster for “Brain and Behavior” category last year, “Competing in the 2013 AAAS poster competition against both graduate and undergraduate students as an undergraduate sophomore was intimidating and challenging, but overall rewarding. I was asked interesting questions regarding my research, which have ultimately benefited my current findings in the lab.”

AAAS is by no means unique in providing educational opportunities to college students. Many other scientific societies and associations–particularly those in the basic sciences–feature a number of programs to get student involved in their disciplines. For instance, the combined undergraduate/graduate poster session during the American Society of Cell Biology Annual Meeting drew in nearly student 200 presenters during its December 2013 meeting in New Orleans, many of whom were also registered to present in the general poster session. Over 1,200 students are expected to present at the special undergraduate poster session for the upcoming American Chemical Society National Meeting & Expo in Dallas, Texas, and thousands more will be participating in the 2.5 days of programming designed specifically for college students. Given these student-oriented learning opportunities that many scientific societies provide, every student researcher should consider attending a professional science symposium during their undergraduate career.

Despite the popular media depiction of scientists as antisocial individuals, academia is an inherently collaborative profession. At the undergraduate level, it may be hard to see the exchanges across laboratories, but the accretion of knowledge requires the communication of complex ideas from one scientist to another. Although the advent of the e-mail has largely supplanted the necessity of face-to-face conversations, this cross-fertilization of ideas still takes place during academic conferences, where researchers present their projects, discuss their findings, network with potential collaborators, and socialize with their peers. Other sort of interactions occur during meetings as well; graduate students look for post-doc positions, post-docs look for post-post-doc opportunities, principal investigators look for ideas to take back to their lab, science reporters look for interesting scoops, and vendors look for attendees to hawk their services and convention tchotchkes. Seeing these exchanges first-hand will help students to get a feel for a component of scientific research that is not readily observable in the laboratory.

By presenting at a conference, students can gain soft-skills that will be valuable at every level of their academic careers. Students participating in a poster presentation must prepare a visual representation of their work and present the summary of their findings clearly and concisely to other attendees. The poster-making process requires students organize their data and to delve into science writing at a deeper level than allowed by class lab reports. Many undergraduate poster symposiums pair presenters with scientist judges who have some degree of expertise on the topic at hand. This requires the student to be well versed on the paradigms and the methods used in his or her field. The entire process of preparing and presenting a poster necessitate a significant amount of sustained effort and helps student researchers to internalize their research and to build skills that will come handy in the future.

Students also have the opportunity to explore the leading edge of the discipline, and making connections in the scientific community can be of huge benefit for an undergraduate interested in embarking on a scientific career. Walking around the general poster session and attending oral presentations will allow students to get acquainted with the most important recent discoveries circulating in the field. This can help students to identify potential projects, laboratories, and institutions that they would like to work with in the future.

“The AAAS conference reminded me that I’m not alone and that there were lots of other people who were interested in science. I’ve kept pursuing research opportunities and I’ll be participating in the Princeton REU [Research Experiences for Undergraduates] in the summer,” said Christopher Luna, an Arizona State University junior and winner of the “Math/Technology/Engineering” category in 2013.

Any undergraduate who is interested in academia should identify a conference or a meeting of interest–especially those that offer programming for college students–by asking their research advisers. Science is a cooperative endeavor, and conferences allow undergraduate researchers a chance to explore their field outside of their laboratories and to gain skills early in their scientific training.


Yoo Jung (Y.J.) Kim is a senior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. She is a former editor-in-chief of the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science and is currently working on a book to be published by the University of Chicago Press in Fall 2015. You can find Y.J. on her website at

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What do PLOS and Lady Gaga have in common?

What do PLOS and Lady Gaga have in common?  Nothing really…unless you count this video parody from some grad students at the University of California, Berkeley.

We tracked down the makers of the video to find out a little more about them. Below is a brief Q&A with director Ross Wilson and star Mary Anne Kidwell.

1.) Why PLOS? Was it principle or were we an easy rhyming mechanism?

Lady Mary Anne strikes a pose

Lady Mary Anne strikes a pose

Ross Wilson: The genesis of the idea certainly lies in the delightful phonetic similarity between “in PLOS” and the original song’s titular “Applause”, but we became much more enthusiastic about it as we considered all the timely themes we could touch on in fun ways. I knew that the idea was meant to be when I realized that Mary Wiese, the star of the Hui Zheng lab’s outstanding “Bad Project” parody and viral hit, has two PLOS ONE papers to her name. This project was contingent on our lab being friendly to open access journals, and I am proud that we have indeed published in PLOS ONE and eLife. Additionally, one perk of being an HHMI lab is that every paper we publish will appear in PubMed Central, delivering open access in a practical sense regardless of journal.

Mary Anne Kidwell: The more we thought about the contrast between Science/Nature/Cell and open access journals, the more appealing it was to invoke a well-known journal like PLOS ONE. When it came to writing the lyrics and making the video, it was important to strike the right balance between the challenges that come with publishing in “hot” journals versus publishing in open access journals.

2.)Describe the team, either as a whole or individually?

RW: The team behind the parody was primarily me and Mary Anne; I contributed a lot behind-the-scenes while she delivered the vocals and star power.

MAK: While Ross and I did most of the work, we couldn’t have done it without our incredibly supportive lab. They provided lot of amazing ideas and help for the video, such as inspiration for the journal cover dress. Ross and I have had a lot of practice working together musically. Over the years, we’ve done Lady Gaga duets during our lab karoke outings and on-stage during our departmental retreat. We have no shame.

3.) Describe your lab?

RW: The Doudna lab has a long history of research into the mechanisms of RNA biology. Although our work on Cas9 has received plenty of attention lately due to the implications for genome engineering, Mary Anne and I study Dicer and its role in microRNA biogenesis. We joke about a unification of these two sides of the lab in the “group meeting” segment of the video, where a Cas9-Dicer fusion enzyme is facetiously suggested to allow time travel.

MAK: Work hard, play hard. Jennifer Doudna has created great lab environment and like the rest of the lab, she is really encouraging of all our crazy ideas (scientific and otherwise). Watch out for her cameo at the end of the video!

Professor Doudna and her lab: working hard and playing harder

Professor Doudna and her lab: working hard and playing hard

4.) What is your research focus?

RW: My research centers on the interplay of the endonuclease Dicer and its protein partners in ensuring quality control of the microRNAs responsible for gene regulation in mammals.

MAK: I study how small RNAs are created but the RNase Dicer and its accessory proteins for RNA interference. I’ve primarily used biochemistry and single-molecule experiments to analyze how these small RNAs are made and understand their role in gene silencing.

5.) Fess up, who is the Lady Gaga fan?

RW: Mary Anne and I are both massive fans of Lady Gaga and had a great time attending a concert of hers together earlier this year.

 MAK: Incidentally, the idea for the PLOS video came when we were watching Lady Gaga as a lab. We booked a conference room for a late night viewing of her recent show and her music inspired us.

6.) How long did the video take to produce?

RossRW: After incorporating all the desired themes into the lyrics, Mary Anne and I recorded the audio during a weekend afternoon. For the video portion, we spent a few hours recording in the wake of our lab holiday party, followed by a long night of editing in order to make the deadline for the annual UC Berkeley “MCB Follies” screening scheduled for the following evening.

MAK: We had the idea percolating around for a few months which helped streamline the recording process. We had more ideas than we could squeeze into the video and actually ended up cutting the recording a little. While I don’t want to subject people to more of my singing, Ross and I wish they could hear the line: “Why waste your time with magazines, when there’s PLOS, there’s PLOS, there’s PLOS.”

8.) What is the most interesting feedback/comment that you have received?

RW: I think it’s really interesting how much each viewer brings to the interpretation of the video. If someone is particularly obsessed with impact factor, they tend to think we’re poking fun at the idea of open access. In contrast, if someone is keen on open access they are likely to pick up on the ways we were critical of the status quo. Ultimately, I think this is a complex issue worthy of consideration and I hope that were able to maintain some of the nuance inherent to the debate in what should be an enjoyable video first and foremost.

MAK: After our first screening of the video, a Berkeley professor asked “What about eLife?”


Thanks for the awesome video DLab Follies!

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