A psychological scientist goes to Washington to rally for NIH funding

More than 350 advocates and organizations met with Congress to urge for increased medical research funding.

By Dawn K. Wilson

The fifth annual Rally for Medical Research on Capitol Hill took place on September 14, 2017 with more 350 advocates and organizations participating. The Rally for Medical Research has been held annually since 2013 to raise awareness of the urgent need for investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in order to improve health, spur scientific progress, inspire hope, and save lives.

The American Psychological Association (APA), an active participating organization in this event, invited me to be a psychologist advocate given my NIH-funded research at the University of South Carolina.  I participated alongside other advocates from South Carolina, including fellow researchers from the University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina and a team of patients.  The theme of this event was “Together for More Progress More Hope More Life.”  The 2017 rally, the largest one to date, included advocates from 37 states and the District of Columbia who conducted more than 250 meetings with House of Representatives and Senate offices. 

In fiscal years (FY) 2016 and 2017, Congress provided the first significant increases in funding for the NIH in more than a decade. This year’s rally aimed to build on that momentum by urging Congress to continue making medical research a national priority by providing robust, sustained and predictable funding increases for NIH in 2018 and beyond.  Given the administration’s FY 2018 budget proposal that called for massive cuts to NIH and other federal agencies, as well as more than a decade (since 2004) of near flat-funding for NIH when adjusted for inflation, we expressed our deep gratitude to Congress for its support of a spending bill that included a $2 billion funding increase for NIH in FY 2018.

Our South Carolina team of advocates met with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) to discuss our funding request.  Sen. Scott  is a strong advocate for youth with rare diseases and became a champion for an 11-year old girl who has had two brain surgeries for encephalitis, a disease that has seen little medical advancements in the past 50 years. Sen. Scott was supportive of our requests to increase NIH funding in the coming year (he also shared his birthday cake with us during our visit).

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Dr. Dawn Wilson

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Dr. Dawn Wilson

We also met with South Carolina Congressmen Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC).  Although Rep. Norman had not previously considered voting for the NIH funding increase, after we spoke with him and his staff for an hour (!), he agreed it was a worthwhile cause and he might have to reconsider.  Meanwhile, Rep. Norman will be in South Carolina soon to engage in efforts to increase health care access to rural health areas.

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC; 3rd from left), Dr. Dawn Wilson (2nd from right), and other South Carolina advocates during the Rally for Medical Research.

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC; 3rd from left), Dr. Dawn Wilson (2nd from right), and other South Carolina advocates during the Rally for Medical Research.

I was fortunate to share my work at the University of South Carolina with the senators and representatives with whom we met.  As the principal investigator on a $2.5 million NIH-funded project, “Families Improving Together (FIT) for Weight Loss,” I shared the importance of this program that targets overweight African American adolescents and their parents who are at high risk for diabetes and related chronic diseases.  Health care costs associated with managing these chronic diseases are expensive. This project is testing the efficacy of integrating cultural tailoring, positive parenting skills, motivational strategies, and behavioral skills into a comprehensive curriculum aimed at reducing obesity in African American teens and their parents.  It is one of the few large-scale NIH funded trials that specifically targets underserved ethnic minority populations using a family-based behavioral intervention for long-term lifestyle change. 

Our next steps are to disseminate this intervention on a population level, and test it in an effectiveness trial, through an online tailored program in community settings.  The critical point is not only that without the continued funding from the NIH, this work would not happen, but that the benefits that might be derived from the work, namely improvements in the rates of adolescent obesity for highly impacted, underserved ethnic minorities, would be lost.

APA is a strong advocate for science, working to protect and increase federal funding for psychological science.  Let’s continue to support these efforts by thanking our senators and representatives for the last two years of $2 billion dollar per year increases, but also letting them know that we need to see the same increase in the coming year.

Dawn K. Wilson is the advocacy liaison to, and member of, the Health Policy Council

of the Society for Health Psychology (APA Division 38).