By: Amanda Labuza
After learning cigarettes were bad for you in 1st grade, I wrote to my state senator and asked why they were legal.
No surprise, they never wrote back. My young heart was broken. I like to blame that day for my lack of involvement in politics. In reality, it probably isn’t because of a snobby senator in 1st grade who was too cool to respond to a young girl’s difficult question, but rather because I felt defeated. In our country it is easy to feel like we don’t have a voice in politics, so it can seem easier to turn our backs and be blind to everything.
Unfortunately, now that I’m an adult (a fact I still try to ignore), turning a blind eye is becoming harder. Politics are affecting my life - in fact, many of our future jobs are dependent on federal funds going towards research. So I decided to try to do something about it. I encouraged the first grade girl inside me to try again. I joined the Society for Neuroscience’s Hill Day.
This annual advocacy day brought over 60 scientists in all stages of their career to Capitol Hill to spend St. Patrick’s Day visiting congressmen and advocating for science funding. We asked them to support the motion to increase NIH funding this year by $34.5 billion and NSF funding by $8 billion. I learned that this value would merely bring us back to our funding levels in 2003, once inflation has been accounted for. I personally met with 6 legislative aides from Illinois and Ohio districts. They were patient, kind, and a few even had insightful questions. While they were busy, they were able to be fully present to listen to our concerns about research funding.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t have my doubts about this entire campaign. Were 5 scientists sitting in an aide’s office really going to change a senator’s mind about budget priorities? Probably not. But I realized we were doing something just as important - we were asking. You cannot get what you don’t ask for. Those who were already supporting the increase for NIH needed stories from citizens to help them explain why it was important. By speaking up to everyone, we took away their ignorance; when we were finished, no one could say they didn’t know we needed so much money. Most importantly, we became a resource for the aides. We offered them insight, stories, and lab tours. One former aide told us, “I never understood why you needed so much money for zebrafish, until someone took me to their lab and I saw what 20,000 zebrafish looked like.” It may be a small step, but it is an important one.
Now I am applying these lessons to a local cause. Currently, our state legislators are reviewing bill SB1052, which will effectively merge the University of Maryland, College Park and UMB into one school. The bill, which can be viewed here, focuses on the benefits to College Park, while passing over any potential issues for our campus. Personally, I am proud to attend a graduate-only university. I enjoy campus activities aimed towards an older age group, academic programs focused on graduate students, and the lack of undergraduates in my classes. I do not want to give up that identity so that College Park can claim our medical school. This bill proposes a merger on an unrealistic timeline. Should SB1052 pass within the next month, our schools will be merged by July 1st of this year. How future transportation will occur between the two merged campuses is unclear. How joint faculty will be hired is vague. What this means for our TA requirements, classes, or research opportunities is all ambiguous. I find it unrealistic.
Our students have done a great job so far speaking up. Our GSA president wrote an article for the Baltimore Sun describing UMB’s grievances with this bill. Our USGA president went to Annapolis this past week to represent our student’s concerns to a committee reviewing the bill. While these are fantastic steps, I have learned we cannot get what we do not ask for. I encourage all of you to apply my lessons from this past month. Write to your state legislators and express your concern for SB1052 in the upcoming days. Attend town hall meetings pertaining to this issue. Make our voices heard. There is power in numbers, or so my first grade self likes to believe.
UPDATE: The Maryland Strategic Partnership Act of 2016 passed out of the House of Delegates with amendments on March 30, 2016; those amendments have been approved by the Senate. The bill will now be sent to Governor Hogan for further condsideration.