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Science funding bolstered by grassroots lobbying

David Pittman

Scientists and their students turn to Washington to push for higher – if not sustained – federal funding for basic and applied science research as Congress looks to trim spending.

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Before Samuel Brinton attended his first day of class as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Manhattan, KS, native learned funding for his fellowship had been cut by Congress.

“Instantaneously, my ride to MIT was gone,” Brinton said. To help himself and others like him, he lobbied Washington lawmakers last year to have the funding restored.

Members of Stand With Science meet with Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.). From left to right: Nathaniel Twarog, Hoku West-Foyle, Rep. Capuano, Samuel Brinton

With money secured for now, Brinton and other graduate students started Stand With Science, a 10,000-member strong coalition of U.S. graduate students who lobby and educate Congress about the importance of federal science and engineering funding.

“We came up with this concept saying that we needed to have the voice of the graduate student be represented,” said Brinton, a first-year student in MIT’s nuclear science and engineering and technology and policy programs.

With Washington looking to trim federal spending in any area possible, scientists and their students have taken matters into their own hands, pushing lawmakers to keep funding to spur innovation and job creation that will buoy the economy in decades to come.

Rather than waiting for science funding advocates to lobby Congress, Stephen Meltzer, M.D., biomedical researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, started his own efforts. He started an online petition demanding $33 billion in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding in fiscal 2013.

Meltzer’s petition has collected more than 14,000 signatures as of this week with the goal of topping 25,000 by April 17. If it tops 25,000, the petition would have to be reviewed and responded to by the White House.

Stand With Science comprises 85% of its members outside its home state of Massachusetts with graduate students from public and private schools from California to Connecticut in nearly every science field. For example, its three founders study in nuclear engineering, health sciences, and mechanical engineering.

But the groups face an uphill battle to realize higher science funding – and Brinton knows it. With a skyrocketing national deficit and fiscal conservatives controlling the House of Representatives, the question is how much programs will be cut, not if.

“We know there’s going to be cuts. That’s recognized,” Brinton said. “What will be considered a success is if federal research funding does not take as large a cut as everything else.”

President Barack Obama’s proposed fiscal 2013 federal budget calls for the NIH’s funding to remain steady at $33 billion. However, the White House says its proposed spending on basic and applied research increases by 3.3% to $64 billion in its 2013 budget.

Students from Stand With Science visited Capitol Hill on Tuesday to visit with staff and lawmakers from seven Congressional offices to deliver a letter urging little or no cuts to federal science budgets.

With a continuing budget debate and presidential elections on the horizon where federal spending is bound to be a key issue, the scientists are sure to have a long road ahead.