Category Archives: SR News

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.


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.

Scientific community unites in defence of primate research

The Backstory

It’s been a busy few weeks for those who wish to explain the role of primates in research. Last week the NIH held a workshop on “Ensuring the Continued Responsible Oversight of Research with Non-Human Primates” (watch it back here). The Congressionally mandated workshop resulted from report language that was associated with a PETA campaign. PETA hoped the workshop would question whether primates should be used in research at all. Instead PETA were disappointed when many experts came together to talk about how primates remained important to medical and scientific research. Days before the event, PETA activist, Professor John Gluck, wrote to the New York Times to criticise the use of primates in research. Speaking of Research posted a response – “The ethics and value of responsible animal research” – that was signed by over 100 scientists. Other organisations have subsequently written back to the newspaper with letters published this week.

Over in the UK, a group of 21 academics (primarily anthropologists) including Sir David Attenborough (notable broadcaster and naturalist) wrote to the online-only Independent newspaper to call for an end to certain neuroscience experiments involving primates. This provoked a backlash from the research community, who accused him of being “seduced by pseudoscience“. They may have had a point – Attenborough’s letter,  organised by Cruelty Free International, backed itself up with a recent paper “Non-human primates in neuroscience research: The case against its scientific necessity” (authored by two staff at Cruelty Free International). The UK Expert Group for Non-Human Primate Neuroscience Research told The Independent:

“We are disappointed to see that David Attenborough and a number of scientists have been misled by the pseudoscience in the paper by CFI, an organisation intent on ending research with all animals, not just primates. “

The paper (by Bailey & Taylor, 2016) itself suggests that several medical advances – such as Deep Brain Stimulation – did not rely on animal studies. This would not seem to match what can be seen in the academic literature, indeed Alim Benabid, who won a Lasker Award for his role in developing the technique noted the important role of animal models, including primates.

Researchers Unite!

There are many other events which have played into a frustration by primate researchers, but the response was huge. Understanding Animal Research coordinated a letter on the role of primates in research. Within a few days hundreds of primate researchers and neuroscientists had signed up. Notable signatories included: Sir John Gurdon, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and the 2009 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, for their work in reprogramming mature cells into early stem cells; Sir John E Walker, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for elucidating the mechanisms behind the synthesis of ATP; Professor Mahlon DeLong and Alim Benabid, who jointly won the 2014 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for their research developing Deep Brain Stimulation as a surgical treatment for Parkinson’s (the same discovery that the Bailey & Taylor, 2016, paper suggested did not require  primates); and Professor Miguel Nicolelis, whose Walk Again project allowed a young paraplegic in an exo-skeleton to kick a football.

neuroscience-starsOver twenty organisations, including Speaking of Research, the Society for Neuroscience (SFN), and the American Psychological Association (APA) signed their support ( a full list of signatories can be found here). The letter was published by the UK newspaper, The Guardian, on 13th September (and the following day in print), along with an accompanying article.

Furthermore, around 400 researchers also signed on to the letter:

Nonhuman primates have long played a key role in life-changing medical advances. A recent white paper by nine scientific societies in the US produced a list of fifty medical advances from the last fifty years made possible through studies on nonhuman primates. These included: treatments for leprosy, HIV and Parkinson’s; the MMR and hepatitis B vaccines; and earlier diagnosis and better treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome and breast cancer.

The biological similarities between humans and other primates means that they are sometimes the only effective model for complex neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. More than ten million people suffer from Parkinson’s worldwide, and a recent study estimated that one in three people born in 2015 will develop dementia in their lifetime. Primate research offers treatments, and hope for future treatments, to patients and their families. Already over two hundred thousand Parkinson’s patients have had their life dramatically improved thanks to Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, which reduces the tremors of sufferers. This treatment was developed from research carried out in a few hundred monkeys in the 1980-90s.

Given that primates are intelligent and sensitive animals, such research requires a higher level of ethical justification. The scientific community continues to work together to minimise the suffering of primates wherever possible. We welcome the worldwide effort to Replace, Refine and Reduce the use of primates in research.

We, the undersigned, believe that if we are to effectively combat the scourge of neurodegenerative and other crippling diseases, we will require the careful and considered use of nonhuman primates. Stringent regulations across the developed world exist to ensure that primates are only used where there is no other available model – be that the use of a mouse or a non-animal alternative and to protect the wellbeing of those animals still required. The use of primates is not undertaken lightly, however, while not all primate research results in a new treatment, it nonetheless plays a role in developing both the basic and applied knowledge that is crucial for medical advances.

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

Get involved – show your support!

While, the letter itself is published. Understanding Animal Research are continuing the accept signatories from neuroscientists and primate researchers (signatories must be from academia and must hold a PhD, MD or equivalent). These are being updated on a regular basis on their website.

So if you wish to sign – click here:

Already they are up to over 550 signatories – just one week after they started collecting (considerably more than the 21 signatories that Cruelty Free International managed in their letter, and with a lot more expertise in the area of Neuroscience).

Speaking of Research

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Dr. Dettmer Goes to Washington

Part 1 of a 4-part series in which a scientific researcher, Dr Amanda Dettmer, describes her entry into the world of legislation and public advocacy. It is important that the scientific community, and the scientists themselves, engage with science policy – policy makers are regularly courted by animal rights groups, and it is important that they also hear the voice of scientists.

On March 17, 2016, I attended Capitol Hill Day as a Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Early Career Policy Ambassador. I applied for this program because I wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of science policy: how it is enacted, who informs it, and how everyday citizens (scientist and non-scientist alike) can contribute to it. These issues can have a huge impact on science; I know this because funding issues have led to a decision to slowly close the animal facility where I work at the National Institutes of Health. Consequently, I wanted to know more about the particular steps in the science legislation process. According to SfN:

SfN Capitol Hill Day is the hallmark advocacy event of the year. SfN members from across the country convene on Capitol Hill to meet with their congressional representatives to discuss advances in the field of neuroscience, share the economic and public health benefits of investment in biomedical research, and make the case for strong national investment in scientific research through NIH and NSF.

Hill Day actually began the day before, when all SfN members who came to attend SfN Hill Day (either as citizens or as Policy Ambassadors) underwent a training session to discuss the Hill Day process, practice “elevator pitches” to give to legislators, and discuss strategies for particular types of scenarios that might occur. At the training we were divided into our Hill Day groups (there were 12) and given our meeting schedules for the next day. Each group was headed by a SfN staffer with prior experience at Hill Day.

The 2016 Class of Society for Neuroscience Early Career Policy Ambassadors

The 2016 Class of Society for Neuroscience Early Career Policy Ambassadors

My group consisted of our SfN staff leader and five scientists: a postbaccalaureate research fellow, one doctoral student, two postdoctoral fellows (including myself), and a PI from a research institution in Mexico (even abroad, scientists know the impact of sustained funding for NIH and NSF!). Together, we represented West Virginia and Maryland – four lived and/or worked in Maryland, and the other in West Virginia. The morning of Hill Day, all SfN Hill Day participants met for breakfast and for last-minute preparations before beginning meetings with legislators.

I learned something in the morning about the geographical landscape of Washington, D.C., too – the buildings on either side of the Capitol house the offices of the more than 500 legislators who serve in Congress. Every single Representative and Senator has his or her own office, with a plaque on the wall next to the door displaying the state they represent, and typically the U.S. and state flags on either side of the door. Some choose to add a little personal flair, like the Representative from Arizona who stated that his office was dog-friendly and had a sign alerting visitors that there was a dog in the office! So, our meetings were in three different buildings throughout the day, depending on if we were meeting with Representatives (buildings on one side of the Capitol) or Senators (buildings on the other side of the Capitol). There was a lot of walking…if you plan to attend a Hill Day in the future, be sure to wear comfortable shoes!

Rep. David Schweikert’s (R-AZ) dog-friendly office on Capitol Hill

Rep. David Schweikert’s (R-AZ) dog-friendly office on Capitol Hill

In all cases, we met with the staff of each legislator, who was him- or her-self out of office. I learned that this is not uncommon, especially on days like ours when a last-minute vote was called so all Representatives had to go to Capitol Hill. Our first meeting was with a staffer in Rep. Chris VanHollen’s (D-MD) office. She was very interested (and was informed about) the closure of the NIH Poolesville facility, and I took the opportunity to underscore the need for consistent funding for humane, ethical animal research, and to emphasize the importance of animal models in scientific advances. I also emphasized the impact that the facility closure has on early career scientists and students – really, the next generation of science – who must now re-evaluate their career plans. It was a rare opportunity to tell a legislator exactly how funding decisions impact the present and future state of science.

Our next meetings were with Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), and Rep. John Delaney (D-MD). In every meeting, we followed a fairly standard pattern of presentation, given that the legislators’ offices had such tight schedules. Our SfN leader, Sylvie Raver, would introduce herself and briefly give her science background, then the five of us would do the same. We would be sure to identify which of us was the constituent for that particular Congressperson, and you could see the staffer immediately hone in on that person or people. As a group, we’d thank the legislators for their past support for scientific funding (Maryland is very “friendly” to scientists, especially since NIH resides there, and the senators and representatives we met from West Virginia were also – but other states are less so and it becomes quickly apparent how advocating to your legislator in person can be very effective). We’d then recommend that they join the NIH Caucus or the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus, and ask that they advocate and vote for $34.5 billion for NIH and $8 billion for NSF in fiscal year 2017, as well as to continue to support the BRAIN Initiative at current and future recommended funding levels. With each legislator, we determined the best points in the conversation to discuss the value of humane, ethical animal research studies. Finally, constituents would invite the Congressperson for a lab tour, and we would answer any questions and offer ourselves as science resources before ending the meeting.

Me outside the office of my Representative, John Delaney (D-MD)

Me outside the office of my Representative, John Delaney (D-MD)

Altogether, the experience was extremely enlightening, and really fun. It was energizing to be a part of the process and to advocate for science in a way I’ve never done before, in a way that feels like it might actually make a difference. And the best part is – you can meet with your Representatives in your own district; you don’t have to make a special trip to Washington D.C. I challenge every scientist to schedule at least one meeting in the next year with their Representative to advocate for science funding, and particularly, for the need for animal models in science. You’ll find that you’ll be well-received, you’ll have fun, and you’ll be more engaged than ever before. In most cases, it will be the start of a relationship with your legislator – you can contact them again with updates in your field, give them data to help guide their decisions, and serve as a resource for them for future votes.

Following Hill Day, I will be conducting three outreach activities as part of my Early Career Policy Ambassadorship. I’ll be interviewing my Representative, John Delaney (D-MD), to learn the steps legislators take to devise, draft, and pass pro-science policy. I’ll also interview a science policy advocacy group, the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), to learn how they become involved in – and inform – the science legislation process. Finally, I’ll culminate my year with a poster at the annual SfN meeting that disseminates this information and specifically informs the public – including scientists – how they can become effectively involved in the process.

All of these activities will be blogged as well – stay tuned for parts two, three, and four!

Things I Learned

  • There is not just one Hill Day. Organizations from all over the country schedule meetings in advance with their legislators to occur on one day. I saw members from the Sierra Club in the hallways during our Hill Day. Others might have their Hill Day later in March or in April.
  • Legislators (and/or their staff) really do want to hear from constituents – they do not see it as a waste of time. Because constituents are voters, they take meetings with them seriously.
  • There are Congressional and House caucuses specifically related to science that you can – and should! – ask your legislator to join. There is the NIH Caucus for both Representatives and Senators, and the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus for Representatives only. The Senate caucuses are informal – meaning they do not receive official recognition or funding from their chamber (the Senate). Congressional caucuses are formal member organizations within the U.S. House of Representatives. A complete list of congressional caucuses can be found here.

Dr Amanda M. Dettmer

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

Over 200 institutions publish online animal research position statements

It’s a good start but there’s plenty more still to be done, and it is being done. Yesterday the University of Edinburgh launched their excellent new animal research resource, too late to be included on our list this time around, but definitely worthy of full marks!

Over 200 research institutions now have clear policy statements or public facing web pages to explain the institution’s position on animal research according to Speaking of Research. In 2015, Speaking of Research began logging the policy statements of research institutions in Europe, North America and Australia.


These web statements have been graded from 0 to 4, based on the level of information an institution provides about its animal studies. This information includes the level of detail of an institution’s research, its welfare procedures and the use of case studies, images and videos. To date, only 10 research institutions have received full marks, two in Germany, and four in each of the UK and US.

The list has been a joint effort by the research community, with scientists and members of the public submitting web statements they find – from their own institution or others – through a form on the Speaking of Research website.

Speaking of Research Director, Tom Holder, said:

There is a strong push worldwide towards openness in animal research. Speaking of Research encourage the scientific community to ensure their own institution has a clear and public statement on the importance of animals in medical and veterinary research, and to submit such statements to our website.”

The US has become increasingly open about its animal use in the past decade. Many more institutions are publicising details of the types of research going on, and the reason why on their website.

Paula Clifford, Executive Director of Americans for Medical Progress, said:

Openness about how medicine is advanced, especially information on the vital role of research animals and the care they receive, gives citizens truthful information and the knowledge necessary to make an informed decision to support of the scientists who work every day to improve the quality of life for both people and animals.”

Prof Dan Uhlrich, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Policy, said:

Our work is important enough to merit public funding, so it’s important we make an effort to show people how and why animal research is conducted at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.  We’re gratified to be acknowledged for that effort and pleased to see partners and colleagues making the same commitment.”

While many institutions have received zero or one tick, they are still doing much better than those institutions which do not discuss their animal research in a statement on their website at all. We congratulate each and every institution that puts up any statement which clearly explains why they conduct animal studies.

Those institutions with full marks are:


Background Briefing on Animal Research in Germany

Speaking of Research have now added a fourth background briefing on animal research to our list. We now have a German background briefing – in both English and German – to add to our briefings on the US, UK and Canada. We hope this briefing will offer journalists, politicians and the public a short, handy overview of the key facts. Our two-page summary provides information including the number of animals used for research purposes, the laws and regulations surrounding animal research, and some key questions people have.

Download our background briefing on animal research in Germany [or in German]

As with our previous briefings, we encourage those working in universities, pharmaceuticals, and other research institutions, to help share this document when contacting or responding to journalists about research stories relating to their institution. By attaching this background briefing to proactive stories, or reactive statements, it can help ensure that your research is understood within the context of the wider research environment.

We would like to thank Pro-Test Deutschland – particularly Renee Hartig, Florian Dehmelt and Jennifer Smuda – for their help in gathering information on the German legislation, and for translating the German-language version of the document.

The latest version of all our briefings can be found on both the Multimedia resources page, and in the menu system under Facts->Animal Research Briefings.

See a sample of the briefing below:

Briefing note on animal research in Germany

We permit anyone to redistribute this briefing providing it remain unchanged, and in whole, with credit to Speaking of Research.

We would also like to thank the Science Media Centre (in the UK), who’s “Briefing Notes on the Use of Animals in Research” provided the inspiration for our own.

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