And the March Goes On

AACP Article

Support for science shines bright during a rainy day in D.C.

By Athena Ponushis

Marching for Science on Capitol Hill, Dr. Kirsten Block, saw witty protest signs and snarky protest signs, signs expressing anger and showing scientists grappling with all stages of grief, others alluding to hope and the infinite possibilities of science. But there was one sign she saw that went straight to the heart of the matter: A little girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, holding up the words, “I want to be a scientist.”

“That is why we are marching,” Block said. “We’re marching for our future, plain and simple, whether it’s the future of the research workforce, like that little girl who wants to be a scientist, or the future of a healthy society, we’re marching for everybody.”

Block does not want that message to get lost. Scientists are marching for the greater good, not just the money to do the research. “I’m not marching for our faculty members to have more funding because then I’ll have a job. I’m marching for our faculty members to make a difference.”

Block, AACP associate director of research and graduate programs, spent much of her childhood in hospital hallways. She lost her dad to cancer when she was a teenager, inciting her lifelong passion to be a cancer researcher. Not long after finishing her postdoctoral fellowship and hanging up her own lab coat to work at AACP, her mom was diagnosed with a rare uterine cancer. Block felt helpless and frustrated. She saw potential for research that could make a difference in her mom’s life, in other lives, but that potential was being diminished as research funding was continually being cut. She found hope through her work with AACP, seeing the sincere passion of pharmacists to improve societal health.

That’s part of the reason why she went to the march. She needed to feel re-inspired. She also felt it was important for AACP to have a presence there, to show members how much the Association supports their research endeavors.

“Research is a vital part of the colleges of pharmacy,” Block said, “so if we can be that example of enthusiasm for advocacy and for standing up for what we believe in, in terms of supporting evidence-based policy and scientific fact not being vilified, then I think we’re moving a step in the right direction, and hopefully empowering our members to take action, too.”

‘Science is inherently political,’ So Speak Up

To those who worried that the march might be seen as science becoming too political, Block said she initially had similar apprehensions, “but it’s important for us as scientists to remember, considering how much of our research is funded by the taxpayers, science is inherently political.”

Block believes there’s been a disconnect between the ivory tower and the real world, and that there hasn’t been enough communication between the research enterprise and the people it’s serving. She would like to see the march serve as a catalyst for conversation, so people can see how their lives are intertwined with science and see that science, and scientists, are accessible. More than anything, she hopes people stay engaged.

Block encourages AACP members to step away from their offices and their lab benches, to talk with their neighbors and community leaders. “Explain to them what it is that you do and why it should matter to them,” Block said. “There’s only so much we ourselves can do, but if we amplify our voices with everyone else, that’s when we can actually make a real difference.”

A Budget Battle Ahead

Every year, there seems to be debate about: ‘Is AHRQ really necessary? ‘Do we need to support the NIH at the level that we do?’ ‘How important is STEM education?’

“Even if we feel like we’ve gotten over the hill with this current fiscal debate, there are more battles on the horizon,” Block said. “Everybody needs to stay charged.”

When Block speaks with her legislators, she tells them about her experience as a caregiver and as a child growing up in the face of cancer, how she felt like research and the biomedical enterprise was the way she could help another child not have to sit through what she did. She tells them of all the good that’s being done at pharmacy schools and connects legislators to the scientists doing the work.

It’s those stories that go a long way in helping lawmakers understand the reach of science, Block said, so she’s organizing a postcard writing campaign for AACP’s Annual Meeting, where members can write a note to their legislators about why pharmacy research is so important and why it needs to be supported in full.

“As much as a scientist may want to sit back and do the research and say, ‘My results will speak for themselves,’ no, they won’t,” Block said. “It’s not enough to just do successful research anymore. You have to be your own advocate and you have to be engaged.”

Athena Ponushis is a freelance writer based in
Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.