1. DiGiulio, Sarah

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Why did 300 doctors, researchers, caregivers, patients, and patient advocates flood Capitol Hill on Sept. 17? Their trek to Washington-for the third annual Rally for Medical Research Hill Day-was to remind Congress that medical research funding needs to be a national priority when it comes to the 2016 federal budget.

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"At NIH and NCI, we've seen a 25 percent reduction in funding over the past decade [taking inflation into account]," explained Jon Retzlaff, MBA, MPA, Managing Director of the Office of Science Policy and Government Affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research. "You're talking about going from one in three grants that were being funded back in 2003 to only about one in six today. That's leaving a lot of great ideas on the cutting room floor.


"The goal of our effort is to inspire the support of Congress to provide the National Institutes of Health with robust, sustained, predictable budget increases for the 2016 fiscal year."


AACR was the founding organizer of the first rally that took place in 2013, which included 10,000 people representing 205 organizations (OT 5/25/13 issue)-and AACR has continued to play a key role in organizing the event. In between attending the multiple events on Capitol Hill, Retzlaff answered these questions in a phone interview about how the situation has changed since the first rally-and what still needs to change.


1. What has changed since this effort began in 2013-in terms of the message, the participants, and the response?

"The message is starting to get traction. There's a convergence of support for medical research that we haven't seen in many, many years. And there are all kinds of reasons for that. The medical research community has been doing a great job of educating and informing members of Congress as to why NIH needs to be a national priority; and I think we've really gotten to a point collectively where the messaging battle is understood and, to some degree, has been won. Members of Congress really are talking about NIH needing robust, predictable, and sustained budget increases-and it needing to be a national priority.


"We had four influential Senators speak last night [at the Rally for Medical Research evening reception] in support of this effort: Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services within the Appropriations Committee; Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), number two in the Senate in the leadership; Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who actually requested to speak this year-she said this was one of the most important causes out there; and Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), a member on the Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services with the Appropriations Committee. We heard from House Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) [at a breakfast to kick off the rally's Hill Day], who showed immense leadership this year. He proposed a $1.1 billion increase for NIH.


"I think the message has really resonated. And we were on Capitol Hill to push to get over the finish line in terms of having these increases provided."


2. What's the finish line? Despite the changed momentum, what challenges still need to be overcome to actually get more NIH funding?

"We have to have these budget caps raised; and we have to have sequestration eliminated at some point. It's a macro-economics issue right now. Without those changes, there's no room-even though there's the interest-to provide those increases. There are not enough resources available to provide NIH with these necessary increases unless we do that."


3. So what's actually happening in Congress today for Hill Day?

"We have 300 individuals going to Capitol Hill to advocate on behalf of NIH. Those 300 individuals all have schedules. We will be meeting with 80 Senators [40 states are represented]. And they will be meeting with more than 200 Representatives in the House. We're going to be blanketing Capitol Hill with information, with passion, with stories of hope, and with stories of success about why NIH funding needs to be a national priority.


"Our advocates here in D.C. are survivors, advocates, family members, representatives of the supporting organizations, doctors, researchers, and young investigators. That's really been the value-having every sector really represented here and participating in this-the entire medical research eco-system.


"I think anyone on Capitol Hill today-if they don't know what the rally medical research is going into today, they'll know what it is after being on Capitol Hill today."


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