Engagement with elected officials is the most effective option biophotonics community members have to influence the current direction of events. Facing a chaotic and disordered future, Milan Yager, executive director of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), offers two choices. "Researchers can sit in the lab and wait for their next paycheck, or they can get up and do something uncomfortable." Rather than dropping anchor when the wind picks up, we must learn to sail. "It's hard, but it must be done."
Why? Because failing to act may dramatically change funding for basic research, the powerhouse of the U.S. research enterprise. He urges all researchers and engineers to connect with their Washington representatives one-on-one.
If we don't, he says, "basic research will become a thing of the past," replaced by translational thinking. University programs focused on biomedicine will stop doing research, and cutting-edge work will wither. "The only innovative projects will be funded by billionaires. All innovation will move to China, Korea, and Singapore."
Yager is no stranger to Washington. He's served in leadership positions at several national trade associations and has held positions on congressional staffs, including serving as chief of staff for Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL). His time with Durbin solidified his confidence in the power of one person to make a difference. After hearing a flight attendant describe her experience of flying day after day exposed to cigarette smoke, Durbin began what would become a 20-year campaign to eliminate smoking from air travel.
Step up and speak up
Yager's practical approach to reversing current trends focuses on active participation. "It's contingent upon us [researchers] to demand dialogue" to change public policy. Attending rallies is important, Yager says, but altering policy requires visits to congressional offices followed up by meetings at a researcher's lab. It also means going to local town halls, sitting in the first row, and speaking up. "Be the first person to raise a hand," Yager says. The questions asked should elicit discussion and dialogue on key issues such as funding trends and NIH buying power, which he points out is now 21% below 2013 levels. Additional activities include writing letters both to Congress and to local news outlets.
One of the most effective ways to share research, Yager says, is to tell a story. "We don't need more data. The most powerful words to influence Congress are 'Let me tell you a story.'" By connecting research to problems facing the nation and the world, scientists show the opportunity research offers to solve current and future challenges.
Research offers a vision of how the future might be, and that vision is what local and national policymakers need to see. "It's not that no one's listening," Yager says. "None of us are talking. If we all put a little water in the bucket, it will eventually overflow and change the world."