Political scientists – getting what you need from government

Excerpt from How to Win the Nobel Prize: An Unexpected Life in Science, by Nobel Laureate J. Michael Bishop (Harvard University Press, 2004). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 2: Accidental Scientist

Political Scientists

Laboratory scientists have traditionally disdained politics. In doing so, they ignore two fundamental equations: to the extent that science relies on public support, as it clearly does, politics is essential to science; and to the extent that science supports the public welfare, as it clearly does, science is essential to politics. We ignore these equations at our peril. Science is no longer a thing apart: it has become part and parcel of our culture, a prevailing force of our time. So there is good reason for scientists to be mindful of politics, and for politicians to be mindful of science.

Several years ago, while attending an international meeting of scientists at the Moscone Conference Center in San Francisco, I was stationed in the front lobby to solicit an audience for a lecture by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa—a distinguished public servant and a strong advocate of biomedical research. To my dismay, the response was not enthusiastic. In the words of one graduate student whom I happened to know: “I don’t want to have anything to do with politics—it’s dirty.” Having delivered that zinger, she turned and walked away (perhaps oblivious to the source of the funds that were supporting her, her research, and even the conference that she was attending).

This stung, because I have another view based on an admiration for representative government and fortified by personal experience. My experience began in 1989, a time of declining funding for biomedical research by the NIH. Disillusionment, anger, even panic were widespread in the research community. One titan of industry assured me that the bulk of biomedical research would have to be privatized within a decade, that federal support would gradually disappear (it has in reality become stronger than at any previous time in our history).

Galvanized by these circumstances, a small group of biomedical scientists gathered in San Francisco to determine how we might become more active in the corridors of government. Our objective was to form a consortium of professional societies that would concentrate its energies on the funding of research grants by the federal government. Our constituency eventually grew to more than 25,000 scientists, sufficient to get congressional attention.

We called this consortium the Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy. The name is replete with anonymity, a difficulty we came to appreciate when we learned that the folks on Capitol Hill very reasonably want to know exactly who you are, who you represent, and how many they might be. Scientists count publications for justification, politicians count constituents (at least those who vote, speak up, or answer polls). I dislike the former practice, but I see nothing wrong with the latter—counting constituents seems the essence of representative government.

There were close to a dozen scientists in the room for our first meeting. Virtually all were members of the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences; one was to become president of that academy, another the director of the NIH; two were newly minted Nobel laureates. Several of us had become outspoken proponents for research in the news media and other public forums. But virtually none of us had ever been inside a congressional office; our political inexperience was embarrassing, even irresponsible.

Faced with our inexperience and intimidated by Capitol Hill, we did the unspeakable—we hired a lobbyist. This was not well received by many of our professional colleagues, who considered it beneath the dignity of science. Hiring a lobbyist reeked of self-interest. How could we stoop so low?

But we were not deterred. What could be wrong with scientists speaking out about their “self-interest”? That quintessential San Franciscan, Ambrose Bierce, once defined politics as “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” But that can be put another way: “getting what you need from government.” And we were convinced that what we needed—further support for research—was in the public interest as well as our own.

Lobbying for Science

So we hired a lobbyist, a former Democratic congressman from Maine named Peter Kyros. In retaining Peter, we obtained not only his own services, but also those of his remarkable colleague, Belle Cummins. Belle became so valued that her untimely death in 2000 evoked admiring eulogies in the scientific press and at national research meetings. The outpouring of posthumous praise and affection for Belle struck me as a singular manifestation of how much we scientists who had worked with her had changed. We had found common cause with the inner workings of government.

It should come as no surprise that Peter was in some ways our antithesis: a pragmatist who regarded the practice of government as a perfectly normal way of life. Antipodes or not, Peter and we soon reached a meeting of the minds. He grew passionate about our cause; we came to respect his savvy and effectiveness. And I soon learned that prowling the halls of Congress with a veteran can be both gratifying and entertaining, a chance to see the political personality in action, a lesson in civics unlike anything I could have imagined when suffering through my high school course in government. Anyone who has not had the experience of visiting Congress with a veteran of the place should leap at the opportunity.

Under Peter’s tutelage, we formed a strategic plan. I learned far more than I expected from our tactics and their deployment. First, we wanted to get more scientists in touch with their representatives in Congress, both on Capitol Hill and in their home districts. To my surprise, we found that scientists are welcome in congressional offices, especially scientists who are constituents and come from the trenches, as opposed to polished advocates based inside the beltway. Over the ensuing years, we have engineered scores of personal visits to Capitol Hill by scientists, most of whom, like us, thereby lost their political virginity.

One essential in dealing with Congress is access. There is a method for this that must be mastered. I see nothing inherently bad in that—there are methods for all things. We learned much of the methodology from Peter. If you ever need to retain a lobbyist, here is a simple rule for efficacy: if they get you through the door, they are probably good.

But there was another, equally important lesson that we learned. Just as we need access to our legislators, we are also obliged to make our case accessible to them. The late congressman George Brown once described the problem in an interview with the New York Times: “[Scientists] have too great a faith in the power of common sense and reason. That’s not what drives most political figures, who are concerned about emotions and the way a certain event will affect their constituency. If you are going to work in a political environment, you have to know the reasoning of the people you’re dealing with. You have to talk to them realistically.” Congressman Brown spoke with authority. He had a university degree in physics, had once been a practicing engineer, and throughout his political career was one of the crucial supporters of research in Congress. He also knew that talking “realistically” does not come easily to scientists, and certainly not to academicians.

My own first visit to Congress was memorable. A colleague and I were taken to see a congressman from the South who had been a member of the House of Representatives for twenty-five years. I remember that he had his feet on his desk, but that may be an embellishment from my imagination. We delivered a carefully rehearsed and deliberately brief treatise on the importance of fundamental biomedical research as sponsored by the NIH. The congressman listened patiently until we finished, then announced that we had confused him by linking fundamental research to the NIH. Why had we done this, he asked, when the NIH supports only clinical research, whereas it is the National Science Foundation that supports fundamental research?

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. A large portion of fundamental medical research is supported by the NIH. This gentleman was profoundly misinformed about how billions of federal funds were being spent every year. I winced, remembering that the congressman had by then voted on twenty-five successive federal budgets for research. Then I looked behind him, where his chief of staff was holding his head in a pronounced and deliberate display of frustration. Message: “our bosses may not always know what is going on, but we do.” And they do indeed. Most of the congressional staff with whom I have dealt are bright, energetic, capable, well intentioned, and wise to the ways of the world. Think twice before arguing with any of these folks. I have tried it more than once and have generally fared poorly.

That lesson learned, my colleague and I were led down the hall to see another and very powerful member of the House of Representatives. There was a brief wait in the anteroom, during which time we were joined by a young woman who was the congressman’s staff for medical affairs. When informed of our purpose, she surprised us by saying, “Sock it to him; I have been trying to change his position on this for weeks.” She was as ardent about our cause as we were.

We performed again. This time, the response was more personal, more sophisticated, and more devastating. The congressman picked up a picture of his granddaughter and announced: “Gentlemen, if I do what you want, when this little girl grows up, she will have no choices left.” The congressman was wary of further encumbering future federal budgets with long-term commitments—a favorite mantra in the halls of Congress and most certainly a legitimate concern.

We discussed the point for almost an hour, more time than I am usually willing to give a petitioning colleague. I was coming to understand the essence of representative government. The congressman was genuinely engaged with our issue, he had a firm and well-articulated position, he clearly loved to argue, and he was good at it.

By now, our organization has provided hundreds of scientists with opportunities like this. The opportunities arose at first as windfall. But now we have become more systematic and more strategic. In particular, we have full-time personnel organizing groups of scientist-advocates and dispatching these groups to Capitol Hill for assaults on congressional offices. At last count, we had organized in California, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New York, and had hopes of expanding into New England.

A second objective of our exercise in politics was to create a nation-wide team of correspondents who would generate a rapid response to crucial legislative initiatives. We soon built the membership of this team to more than two thousand, all of whom are available to be mobilized on short notice by email. The group embodies a formula that I heard early in my tuition on Capitol Hill: one letter gets a response, ten letters gets some attention, one hundred letters may get a vote. Remember that formula the next time you are trying to find the time to write to a member of Congress: you might be number one hundred.

Teaching Science to Politicians

As a third tactic, we instigated the organization of a congressional caucus on biomedical research. Caucuses are a familiar part of congressional life: self-assembled affinity groups such as the Black Caucus, the Manufacturing Caucus, the Trade Caucus, and many others meet intermittently to be briefed about their concerns and to plot legislative strategies. But there had never before been a congressional caucus devoted to research on health and disease.

We saw here the potential to create an unprecedented vehicle for the regular consideration of biomedical science on Capitol Hill. This initiative required delicate maneuvering by our lobbyist, because caucuses can be called together only by members of Congress themselves. Our role could be informal and advisory only. Several members of Congress were recruited to chair the caucus and the membership gradually grew to its current level of approximately 170.

Congressman George Gekas of Pennsylvania deserves special mention. He has been the mainstay of the caucus, attending and chairing virtually all of its meetings to date. Several years ago, the American Society for Cell Biology presented him with its award for public service. He accepted the award with an extemporaneous and impassioned address on the importance of medical research—an authentic and stirring piece of Americana that stunned the audience of jaded scientists. I have learned not to underestimate members of Congress: many are very good on a stump and bring passion to governing.

The main activity of the caucus is a regularly scheduled series of luncheon programs; there have been more than one hundred of these over the past decade. Speakers are biomedical scientists recruited from around the country with the injunction to make their remarks accessible to a general audience. The remarks are published in the Congressional Record. Subjects have ranged from new treatments for cancer to the way in which birds learn their songs. The objective is to inform, not to advocate. In reality, informing about the achievements of biomedical research can be the best form of advocacy.

The principal virtue of the caucus is that it provides a sustained presence for biomedical research on Capitol Hill, a means of getting science and scientists to the Hill. And we have learned that scientists care about this mission: we have by now asked well over one hundred scientists to address the caucus, and fewer than a dozen have declined. Organizers of prestigious research symposia rarely do any better.

The most important outcome of these various efforts has not been legislation, but rather civics lessons for scientists. Several hundred have visited Capitol Hill and spoken one-on-one with its denizens, many for the first time in their lives. Participants generally come away heartened by their reception and gratified that they have played a small part in representative government. The feedback we get is surprisingly grateful and idealistic, a far cry from what I had heard from that graduate student in the Moscone Conference Center. My own experience on Capitol Hill has been similarly gratifying. I rarely get what I want, but I usually come away feeling good about our government.

Some years ago, my professorial colleague and friend, Bruce Alberts, went off to Washington to become president of the National Academy of Sciences. A year or so later, he returned to San Francisco to deliver a lecture entitled “What I Have Learned in Washington.” I remember the first three of his lessons vividly: there are a lot of very smart people in Washington; they work very hard; and many of them mean well.

Despite the unsavory reputation of politics, I am not convinced that, on the whole, it is any less scrupulous than other human endeavors. When science falls under close scrutiny, human shortcomings inevitably emerge. I was recently briefed on the affairs of a prominent medical institution. At the end, I remarked to a colleague that almost everything I had heard concerned conniving, calumny, cupidity, or criminality. Despite these woeful flaws, the research endeavor succeeds. So it is, in my view, with politics.

In recent years it has felt awkward to say admiring things about politics in the United States. (Then again, has it ever been otherwise?) Even those who aspired to public office often found it necessary to disparage government—a strange and harmful paradox. But the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, swept the slate clean. We find ourselves in urgent need of government, of the organizing and unifying force that it provides. We can once again see the importance of “[persuading] bright young people that there are issues worthy of the sacrifices a political career entails.” This rhetoric implies a vocational nobility easily equal to that of science, which I readily acknowledge. It also implies the drudgeries of the job, which include “being polite to strangers, compromising with idiots and reading your every unguarded remark in tabloid headlines.”

I once listened to a distinguished Japanese-American scientist tell the story of how he rose from humble origins to obtain a world-class education, an innovative research career, a major medical discovery, and great personal distinction—all, he emphasized, at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer and through the efforts of the U.S government. An audience of renowned scientists listened raptly as he delivered his concluding line: “God bless America.”

Some years ago, the U.S. statesman Chester Bowles was asked what hope there might be for the future of peace on our planet. His response: “Fill the State Department with young people who believe fervently that peace is possible, and when they get disillusioned, get another group of enthusiastic young people to replace them.” The prescription of Chester Bowles is just the tonic we need for those who dismiss politics as a dirty business.

Excerpted from How to Win the Nobel Prize by Nobel Laureate J. Michael Bishop. Copyright © Harvard University Press, 2003. All rights reserved.

J. Michael Bishop is chancellor emeritus of the University of California San Francisco and professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and director of the G.W. Hooper Foundation, a biomedical research unit at UCSF. He shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Harold Varmus, current director of the National Cancer Institute. They won the award for demonstrating that normal cells contain genes capable of becoming cancer-causing genes, a revolutionary finding that inaugurated a new era of research on the genetic origins of cancer. Bishop’s subsequent analysis of genetic changes in human cancers also influenced scientists worldwide. He made contributions to science policy in a variety of influential positions, including the President’s National Cancer Advisory Board, and has received numerous awards in addition to the Nobel Prize, including the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Biomedical Research and the 2003 National Medal of Science.

J. Michael Bishop – 2003 National Medal of Science

J. Michael Bishop: How I Became a Scientist

J. Michael Bishop at Nobel Conference 42

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