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Advocates, Start Your Engines: Lobbying for Research Funding Increases Will Be a Long Haul

This is a critical year for science funding. Scientists are often the most effective spokespeople about the trickle-down effects of budget cuts--so don’t miss a chance to speak out.

By Patricia Kobor

Those who have been following federal legislation related to the budget are keenly aware that the research budgets of most federal agencies that fund psychological research received sub-inflation increases, or cuts, in this current fiscal year. Recently we reported the bad news for research in the President’s FY09 budget, which, although important, is only the first scene in a fairly lengthy opera.

What steps are needed to change this dreary scenario? Science Government Relations Office (GRO) staff members are hard at work within advocacy coalitions in support of expanded science funding. The targets of this advocacy at the moment are members of the House and Senate Budget Committees. In one example, Elizabeth Hoffman and Pat Kobor are participating in visits to the staff of House and Senate Budget Committee members, in support of improved funding for all the federal public health agencies (among others, the National Institutes of Health). The Coalition for Health Funding has organized these visits, in which delegates of multiple organizations representing scientific and patient advocacy organizations participate.

At these visits, the coalition members give congressional staff an important pitch: increase Function 550, the section of the budget encompassing discretionary health programs, by $5.3 billion in Fiscal Year 2009. It’s a very large increase, but more than 350 organizations have signed a letter supporting it. The reason is that inadequate funding compounded over six years has led to critical deficits in each of the important programs that make up the infrastructure of public health in the U.S. Each year it becomes more expensive to compensate for those deficits, but it’s important for Congress to know what impact shrinking resources have made on these agencies.

The coalition visits have two aims; first to give congressional staff (and through them, the member of Congress) hard information about what level of funding the agencies need (the agencies themselves, as part of the executive branch, may not lobby Congress and must support the Administration’s budget). Second, the visits demonstrate to Congress the extent to which science groups, health providers and patient groups are united in their view of the problem and recommendations for solving it.

In other activities, Karen Studwell, who chairs the Friends of NICHD Coalition, organized a meeting with institute director Duane Alexander to get more detailed information about the NICHD’s budget request. Many of the “Friends of” coalitions have similar meetings with institute or agency directors to help arm the advocates with specific information to take to Congress about the impact of various budget scenarios on the agencies that fund psychological research. APA’s Heather Kelly attended the same type of meeting with National Science Foundation program staff when the President’s budget was released.

What is the timetable for congressional action on the budget? Both the House and Senate Budget committees have been marking up budget resolutions. The House Budget Committee has reported a 550 Health (Discretionary) Budget Authority number for Fiscal Year 2008 of $53.121 billion, and for Fiscal Year 2009, $57.559 billion. This is an increase of $4.438 billion over FY 2008. The Senate Budget Committee number is almost equal to the health community’s request: a $5.27 billion increase over Fiscal Year 2008. So if these numbers hold, there will be ‘room’ in the budget for health programs to receive a healthy increase (although that’s certainly not guaranteed). Each body will debate its budget resolution the week of March 10, and then the two versions will have to be reconciled in conference. Adoption of budget numbers will clear the way for the appropriations process to begin. Apparently the target for Committee action on appropriations bills in both the House and Senate is before Congress adjourns in early August. There are multiple moments in which advocates will seek to make their case. Science GRO staff may notify APA members of budget cutting or budget enhancing amendments and encourage you to weigh in with your members of Congress. Please watch for this type of correspondence from us! Often we will have very little notice, but calls and emails from constituents are incredibly influential.

During an election year, Congress usually chooses one of two ways to deal with must-pass funding legislation. One way is to keep the bills clean of controversial riders and pass them early. The other is to put off the hard decisions until after the November election. It sounds as though this year the second scenario is more likely. We have heard from Hill contacts that it’s likely a catch-all Continuing Resolution will be adopted sometime in September that will fund the government though March.

This is a critical year for science funding. Scientists are often the most effective spokespeople about the trickle-down effects of budget cuts--so don’t miss a chance to speak out. Please continue to share your comments and concerns with Science GRO staff, and watch this space for important calls to action on funding issues. If you do not already receive SPIN, the Science GRO electronic newsletter, you can subscribe to stay up-to-date on these critical activities.