A psychological scientist joins the chorus voicing support for NIH

Advocates meet with their Members of Congress to urge increased funding for medical research.

By David C. Schwebel

Dr. Schwebel is university professor of psychology and associate dean at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The Rally for Medical Research is an annual event designed to bring together the wide-ranging groups who support National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded medical research. As psychologists know quite well, medical research – including that conducted by psychologists – undeniably saves and improves lives. At the 2018 Rally for Medical Research, I joined patients, physicians, scientists, and members representing dozens of other organizations, traveling from across the United States to meet with their Members of Congress and share their personal stories to help the Senators and Representatives recognize the value of NIH-funded medical research.

I am a pediatric psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and I was fortunate to work with the American Psychological Association (APA) and participate in the Rally on September 12-13, 2018. The process was simple. I created a short biographical sketch on my research program that implements behavioral strategies to prevent unintentional child injuries. My description included summaries of several current and recent NIH grants and emphasized their value to improve American lives.

On the first day of the Rally in Washington, DC, I attended an advocacy training session with rally organizers who provided guidance on how to tell a compelling story about how NIH funding has impacted me and my research program, and we reviewed the talking points for the meetings with our Members of Congress.  The training was followed by a terrific reception on Capitol Hill highlighted by talks from Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS).  There was also an inspiring statement by NIH Director Francis Collins with whom I briefly chatted to thank for NIH’s support of my laboratory. Another big plus of the first day in DC was the opportunity to meet the rest of my Alabama delegation “team” – our skilled government relations team leader and two Birmingham-area cancer survivors.

David Schwebel visiting the office of Richard Shelby (R-AL)

David Schwebel visiting the office of Richard Shelby (R-AL)

The Rally Hill Day started with a breakfast together, followed by four meetings with Members of Congress “on the Hill.” Our Alabama team began the day with a senior staffer in Sen. Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) office, a crucial visit given Senator Shelby’s position as member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees NIH funding. My teammates shared their powerful stories of surviving cancer and the impact of NIH-funded research on immunotherapy and cryopreservation. I offered my own story, a description of my research program and examples of how it translated to save and improve children’s lives in Alabama, across America, and throughout the world. The staffer listened intently. Our pitch was an easy sell: Senator Shelby is known to be a strong supporter of NIH.

We met next with a staffer in Sen. Doug Jones’ (D-AL) office. We repeated our stories, and the reception was similar: A supportive office – this time on the Democratic side of the aisle rather than Republican. The visit was productive. Rain was falling in Washington, so our experienced team leader negotiated the underground tunnel systems for us, crossing under the Capitol from the Senate to House office buildings. Fueled by lunch, our next meeting was with a staffer in Rep. Terri Sewell’s (D-AL) office, one of the two representatives who represents the Birmingham metro area. Our stories were again told, and we left with positive feedback.

Our last meeting of the day was in Rep. Gary Palmer’s (R-AL) office, and here awaited a treat: rather than a staffer, we would meet with Rep. Palmer himself. We engaged in a friendly and lengthy interchange, telling our stories and hearing the Congressman’s perspectives. Unlike the others, Rep. Palmer expressed some hesitation about our requests to support the Senate-proposed $2 billion increase for NIH, suggesting he needed to see the full bill before he could support it. I was not devastated though; we had convincingly told our story and Rep. Palmer listened carefully, assuring us he would consider the bill carefully.

At each of the four visits, I offered to host the Members of Congress for a visit and tour of my university laboratory. Each expressed interest, and perhaps that will happen. Even if it does not, I felt that I had delivered a key message to the officials who represent me, my district, state, and country: NIH research, including that done by psychologists, helps us live happier, healthier, and longer lives. It must remain a national priority. And I found the individuals elected to serve – two Democrats and two Republicans – were receptive to hearing that message and ensuring the citizens they represent are served well by psychological science.

Thanks to APA for supporting my travel to the Rally. I have only vague memories of the last (and only other) time I walked the hallways of our congressional office buildings, as a middle-schooler on the all-American school trip to Washington, DC, when I and my classmates met for a photo-op with our congressman. Several decades between visits was far too long, and I expect my next visit to advocate will come sooner. Our voices as psychologists must be heard to help shape the direction of our country.