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Drexel Neuroscientists Go to Washington to Make Budget Requests

April 10, 2017

Brielle Ferguson can usually be found in a Drexel lab studying the prefrontal cortex or trying to build and optimize treatments for psychiatric diseases. Last month, though, she spent a day navigating a space nearly as complex as the human brain: Capitol Hill.

Ferguson, a fifth-year doctoral student in the College of Medicine’s Graduate Program in Neuroscience, went to Washington, D.C., as part of the Society for Neuroscience’s Capitol Hill Day, an annual event in which scientists advocate to their congressional representatives for the benefits of investment in research through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Stepping out of the lab and into the policy arena, even if just for a day, was an eye-opening experience for Ferguson.

“It was extremely energizing and invigorating,” she said. “It’s always an interesting challenge to figure out how to explain your research to someone who’s not a scientist but also is extremely educated. You have to walk the line.”

Ramesh Raghupathi, PhD, a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, has gotten used to walking that line over the years. This year marked his 11th trip to Washington to state the case for increased federal research funding, which he and other scientists depend on to continue their work. And given the role of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey on the Senate Budget Committee and Republican Rep. Charlie Dent on the House Appropriations Committee, Pennsylvania is a bit of a “swing state” when it comes to budget discussions, Raghupathi said.

“As scientists, as educators, one of the things we fail terribly at is the fact that we think it’s beneath us to talk to somebody who’s not on our level,” said Raghupathi. “So communicating our beliefs in the context of education or medical research to the lay public is critically important.”

The small Pennsylvania contingent at Capitol Hill Day had relatively modest requests, Ferguson said: a $2 billion increase in the current NIH budget and a total budget of $8 billion for the NSF. At a time when President Donald Trump is reportedly seeking to cut NIH and NSF funding, advocacy is as important as ever. NIH and NSF funding has stayed largely the same for much of the past decade, meaning that as inflation rises, the actual dollar value of the budget has gone down, Raghupathi said. Meeting with congressional representatives and their staffers to try to change that is just part of being an ambassador for science and research.

“Brielle has been immersed in research and learning what it is to become a PhD, but she needs to know — and all our students need to know — that they can’t just be immersed in what they do in the lab,” Raghupathi said. “They need to expand their horizons.”

For Ferguson, Capitol Hill Day was a realization of that reality. The trip to Washington made her eager to see what options she could pursue in the realm of policy — not just at the federal level, but also locally. She and Raghupathi invited Toomey, Casey and Democratic Rep. Bob Brady to visit a Drexel lab and see what federal funding means to the groups and individuals who use it.

“It got me thinking a lot about what I can do at the local, grassroots level to keep those initiatives going,” said Ferguson. “Hill Day is important, but it’s only once a year. There’s so much time outside of that to mobilize at the local level.”