As part of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) and National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR) Advocacy Day, Magali Saint-Geniez, PhD, and Russell Woods, PhD, two vision researchers from Schepens Eye Research Institute at Mass. Eye and Ear/Harvard Ophthalmology, met with members of Congress on February 9, 2018. Advocacy Day provides an opportunity for scientists to engage with congressional leaders about the importance of funding vision research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Eye Institute (NEI) to advance therapies and cures for blinding diseases.
Drs. Saint-Geniez and Woods participated as members of the Retina Cell section and Low Vision cross-section group of the ARVO Annual Meeting Program Committee, respectively. They both visited the office of Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren. Dr. Saint-Geniez also met with the office of Congressman Michael Capuano, while Dr. Woods met with the office of House Representative, Niki Tsongas.
Despite the current government shutdown, ARVO advocates planned to meet with their legislators to encourage consensus on a long-term budget deal—one that would enable growth for the NIH and NEI budgets. However, an agreement was reached just hours before they met, giving ARVO advocates an opportunity to thank their legislators and refocus their discussion on a new request: supporting an additional $2 billion dollars to NIH in 2018 and 2019 and increasing NEI funding to $800 million in 2019.
A key point of their discussion focused on the decrease in spending power of the NIH, which has dropped by 24 percent since FY2003—a result of steady budget cuts and modest inflation. This reduction in funding has resulted in grant caps that make it difficult to support research teams, biomedical supplies, and other research.
“As investigators, we understand first-hand the critical need for sustained and predictable funding increases in biomedical research,” said Dr. Saint-Geniez. “Meeting with legislative decision-makers helps put a ‘face’ to our research story so members of Congress better understand the connection between research funding and how it impacts public health down the road.”
As research scientists, Drs. Saint-Geniez and Woods also stressed the importance of laboratory research in the bench-to-bedside pipeline. “We need to understand basic biology and the fundamentals of the human condition before we can translate this information into real cures and therapies for patients,” said Dr. Saint-Geniez. “It’s not glamorous work but it’s a crucial building block that helps scientists target potentially effective disease pathways.”
During their visit, Drs. Saint-Geniez and Woods provided some examples of NIH-funded research that have advanced patient care and demonstrated a successful return on investment. One example is Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). Developed with NEI support, OCT is used to assist in diagnosing and monitoring disease progression in patients with age-related macular degeneration. This technology is estimated to have saved about $9 billion in health care costs between 2008 and 2015 (Am J of Ophthalmol, January 2018)—a savings greater than the NEI budget during that period. Dr. Woods noted, “Statistics like these are important to highlight because they demonstrate the value of basic research and help legislators justify future support of NIH/NEI funding."