Dr. Dettmer Goes to Washington, Part 4

Dr Dettmer

Dr Dettmer

In the first 3 parts of this series, I described my experiences at Capitol Hill Day, my interview with the National Association for Biomedical Research, and my interview with Rep. John Delaney (D-MD, 6). In this instalment of the series, I interview Lisa Kaeser, J.D., the Director of Legislation and Public Policy for the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Here, she answers questions regarding her role in the legislative process, focusing in particular on science policy, and the ways in which NIH as an institution – and individual scientists – can become involved.

According to Kaeser, one of the major ways scientists funded by the NICHD, and other institutes within NIH, can become involved is by regularly engaging with their institute’s Office of Legislation and Public Policy about recent scientific discoveries, advances in the field, and especially the rigorous methods involved. This interaction helps these offices to “get it right” when giving briefings to policymakers in Congress.

What role(s) do you take in the legislative process surrounding science policy?

Our office is named the Office of Legislative and Public Policy to address the nexus between science and public policy. Helping to explain scientific advances and the scientific process to policymakers means that we must have a broad understanding of the wide range of science conducted and supported by NICHD. This often takes the form of briefings on Capitol Hill and responding to letters and other inquiries. Of course, I work closely with our scientists to make sure I’m getting it right. Conversely, policymakers in Congress — who must answer to their constituents — offer legislative proposals that may have a helpful, harmful, or benign effect on the science we fund. It’s up to our office to interpret those proposals and, if asked, provide technical assistance on what their impact might be on NICHD’s work.

How does your office work to keep legislators informed of science topics and the latest scientific findings to inform policy?

NICHD has a terrific Office of Communications that provides a huge amount of information on our website, including press releases on new scientific findings and “spotlights” that highlight a researcher or scientific topic area. NICHD also is fortunate to work with a wide variety of constituency organizations that support some aspect of our research. These range from large professional medical societies, to organizations representing scientific disciplines, diseases or condition-specific groups, and are collectively known as the “Friends of NICHD.”  These organizations and their members are effective advocates for science, so it’s critical that we keep them informed about recent advances and get their input on research priorities. For example, NICHD has a monthly newsletter that pulls together the most recent scientific highlights, which we send to all of these groups to help them describe NICHD’s work on Capitol Hill. In addition, the groups are helpful in sponsoring and arranging for congressional briefings, where our scientific staff are asked to speak about research in their fields of expertise.

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What particular steps in the legislative process does NIH become involved in (and, is there an example of science policy that NIH has been involved in that you could provide)?

  • Responding to congressional requests/inquiries: everything from science policy (e.g., stem cell research, research with animals), an update on the latest research developments (e.g., autism), to the status of a grant application in their state or district.
  • Requests for briefings: scientific presentations must be tailored to a lay audience.
  • Requests for technical assistance on proposed legislation: NICHD may not take a “position” on legislation unless the Administration has taken a position. So comments must be limited to what effects the proposed legislative language might have on the research enterprise. For example, legislation that would require NICHD to report back to Congress on progress being made in a specific area might not be especially onerous, whereas legislation that would require establishment of a large research resource (but without additional funding) might not only be redundant with current research efforts, but force difficult funding decisions for the Institute.
  • Preparing for hearings and briefings: The NIH Director is asked to appear before both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees each year. Staff of the 27 NIH Institutes and Centers contribute to a large database of scientific issue briefs that he uses to prepare for the multitude of questions that may be posed by the committees’ members. In addition, each Institute Director may submit a statement for the hearing record that highlights recent research advances and priorities.

In which steps of the process can scientists effectively engage and become involved?

The first step is to become informed about the process, which is what the SfN Early Career Policy Ambassador program, and others like it, do so effectively. While scientists who are Federal employees may not lobby using government time or resources, they are free to speak or write to policymakers on their own time without using their government titles. Non-government scientists are not restricted from working with policymakers, including writing, meetings, or even tours of their labs; they would probably want to work with their home institutions in arranging these visits. And most of the professional societies are deeply engaged in this process, so being an active member of these groups is an excellent way to make your voice heard.

Dr Amanda M. Dettmer

The views and opinions here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the NIH.

One response to “Dr. Dettmer Goes to Washington, Part 4

  1. Thank you Speaking of Research for posting this informative article. We wholeheartedly support your efforts.

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