April 08, 2013

Rally ‘round the research

Science Writer
IAVI Report and VAX

In this guest post, Regina McEnery—science writer for IAVI Report and VAX—writes about a rally held in Washington, DC, on April 8 to call on federal policymakers to support health research. This post originally appeared on the IAVI Report blog.

Megan Kane never thought her first post-doc assignment would be a temporary job in science communications.

The Virginia resident, who graduated from Johns Hopkins recently with a PhD in human genetics, had hoped to land a job with an academic or government lab focused on HIV/AIDS. She has a particular interest in long-term nonprogressors—HIV-infected individuals who are able to control HIV for up to a decade or more without ever taking ARVs.

But after a 5 ½ month search and about a dozen applications, Kane found the hiring climate about as arid as the Sahara. It wasn’t that researchers weren’t impressed with her credentials or interested in hiring her, she said.

They were just reluctant or unable to add new positions—which typically go to early career investigators—due to the rocky funding climate. The fear is that federal funding for basic science, which isn’t exactly exorbitant now, could get a whole lot worse in coming months, thanks to the sequester. That is the $85 billion in automatic and largely indiscriminate spending cuts took effect March 1, which could result in a 5 percent drop in the National Institute of Health’s annual budget of $31 billion.

Kane said her friends are all having a hard time finding jobs. And, at least in her case, the frustration doesn’t end with her career. “My husband works for the federal government and so he’s looking at furlough days,” said Kane, who works for Research!America as a communications intern. “That’s another reason why I need a permanent job.”

Advocates held a rally on April 8 to call on federal policymakers to stop sequestration from damaging health research efforts.
Advocates held a rally on April 8 to call on federal policymakers to stop sequestration from damaging health research efforts.

I ran into Kane, dressed in her white coat and snapping pictures, at an April 8 rally championing support for medical research. Research!America was one of the organizers of the rally, held in Washington, DC, in front of the Carnegie Library, where etched in stone were the words: “Dedicated to the diffusion of knowledge.” The library is adjacent to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where an estimated 18,000 researchers, policymakers, and advocates had gathered for the annual American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting.

It was no coincidence that the rally was staged the same week as the AACR meeting: it is one of the largest scientific conferences in the world, and cancer commands the largest chunk of the NIH budget. People attending the AACR meeting were encouraged to attend the rally—and a few thousand obliged, grabbing free T-shirts with empty boxes printed on the back, so people could spell out why they were there.

Many listed cancer, heart disease or stroke. There was a pancreatic cancer group, a diabetes group, and an endocrine disorders group. About half-dozen women wore hot-pink feather boas around their neck to show their support for breast cancer research. And one lone woman, who declined to give her name, said she was rallying for shigella, a bacterium that causes dysentery and which she has been studying for about eight years.

The rally lasted about two hours and had a long list of speakers that included Regan Hofmann, former editor of POZ magazine and a long-term survivor of HIV. Hofmann said she has been grateful for the daily dose of combination antiretroviral therapy that has kept her alive since her diagnosis in 1996. “But these drugs have side effects and are not easy to take,” she said. “We need a lot more research and development to find preventive and therapeutic vaccines.”

Hofmann said she is grateful for the “extra time on the planet” but “I never stop hoping that one day I won’t have to take the pills.”

She is looking to research to help make that happen.