Alert to biophotonics watchers: Conditions in Washington are setting up for a perfect storm. With just 12 days when both chambers are in session, Congress faces a time crunch to finish its work before the fiscal year ends September 30, 2017. With post-Harvey and -Irma emergency support taking center stage, focus can drift the regular congressional agenda, full of such urgent matters as voting on appropriations bills for National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation funding—which support optics-based research on cancer, neuroscience, and more.
Last week saw the signing of a three-month continuing resolution—a temporary spending bill to keep the federal government operating—as part of a package that provides hurricane relief aid and extends the debt ceiling. Funding for all federal agencies will be decided by the end of the year.
Engage with elected officials
Prior to their August recess, the House developed a "minibus"—a bill that includes a small number of appropriations bills. NIH funding is included in the minibus, and Lynn Marquis, director of the Coalition for the Life Sciences (CLS), is cautiously optimistic. "NIH did fairly well considering the request [for FY2018] would have cut nearly $8 billion." In fact, NIH would get a slight increase—about 3.2%—bringing the budget to $35.2 billion.
But for science funding to remain steady in the unpredictable world of Washington, Marquis says "we need all hands on deck," and echoes the mantra of professional society leaders: Researchers must engage with elected officials.
For its part, CLS participated in the Rally for Medical Research (held every September), which brings together patient groups, universities, research organizations, and others to meet with Hill leaders and staff and urge them to continue supporting scientific research. CLS is also sponsoring an online petition to support the U.S. scientific enterprise—it encourages Congress and the Executive Branch to continue support for merit review and federal science funding agencies, and to promote public access to scientific data.
Simple acts = strong advocacy
While such high-profile efforts help educate Congress, Marquis notes that strong advocacy also comes through simple acts like writing an op-ed in a local paper describing the urgent need to support scientific research: "Members of Congress read their local papers. They are very influential. A researcher doesn't have to come to DC." Voices "from the districts and through professional societies" are powerful, she says.
Prior to August recess, Congress was fairly industrious, passing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Reauthorization Act of 2017 (FDARA) among other major steps. The legislation reauthorizes the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, the Medical Device User Fee Amendments, and two other user-fee programs. For medical devices, FDA leaders say FDARA "establishes a flexible and more efficient path to market for certain new medical device accessories, to enable new and innovative accessories to come to market more rapidly, and enable accessories to be used with a wide range of devices—creating important options for patients."
Passage of FDARA took two years. However, the race is on this fall since Congress has 44 days before the next recess in December.