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How to be an advocate

This morning, a group of panelists issued a call to action to a standing-room-only crowd at the American Society for Cell Biology's 47th Annual Meeting: Scientists must get involved in policy issues, and they have to start now. The session - which included scientists, a congressional staffer, and other advocates - focused on linkurl:how scientists can become involved;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/53611/ in advocating for federal dollars for embryonic stem cell research. It&

By | December 3, 2007

This morning, a group of panelists issued a call to action to a standing-room-only crowd at the American Society for Cell Biology's 47th Annual Meeting: Scientists must get involved in policy issues, and they have to start now. The session - which included scientists, a congressional staffer, and other advocates - focused on linkurl:how scientists can become involved;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/53611/ in advocating for federal dollars for embryonic stem cell research. It's an urgent need, the panelists noted: Since the recent linkurl:discovery of factors;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/23254/ that appear to convert adult human cells into pluripotent cells, opponents of ESC work have stepped up their game, saying the new findings make embryonic work unnecessary. This finding has changed the playing field for ESC work, said Erik Fatemi, staffer for Senator Tom Harkin (who supports expanded federal funding). A few weeks ago, Fatemi said, he believed that every US presidential candidate would reverse current President George W. Bush's veto of ESC work once elected. Now, "I'm not so sure." This is where scientists can help, said Tricia Brooks of the industry group BIO. Patient advocates don't often know the ins and outs of cutting-edge molecular work, and need scientists to show them how to communicate the hope and promise of the research. "I know it's difficult for scientists to step out of what we know and into what we hope to know," she said, but patient advocates and other ESC supporters "need you all for hope, for guidance." Currently, the majority of representatives in the House and Senate linkurl:approve;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53059/ expanding federal funding to newly derived stem cell lines from embryos leftover from in vitro fertilization, but by a linkurl:margin;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/53710/ not wide enough to override the veto. So, how can scientists become advocates? Jennifer Poulakidas, co-vice president of legislative affairs at the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), who used to work in government relations at the University of California, said that department is a good place to start. At many institutions, government relations representatives can "help you transition to an advocacy role." At the moment most policymakers have shifted their focus to other issues such as the Iraq War, Fatemi noted, so letters to policymakers might have less of an effect than high-profile opinion pieces or editorials from scientists who are passionate about the issue. He added that he used to know very little about science, but can now talk comfortably about ESC work because experts took the time to educate him. What scientists say can have a huge impact, he noted - many people don't realize that IVF embryos are destroyed every day anyway, for instance. Scientists can also explain that the debate is about more than ethics vs. science, since it's arguably unethical to deny potential treatments. Sean Morrison, a linkurl:stem cell biologist;http://www.med.umich.edu/cdb/sub_pages/People/morrison.htm from the University of Michigan, said that scientists can add cautionary notes to the recent finding about adult cells - for instance, the researchers used a virus to transfect the cells, which linkurl:predisposes them;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/53946/ to cancer. And the initial finding is just that: initial; we need many more experiments to make sure these cells truly possess an ESC quality, he added. And scientific advocacy is about more just stem cells, the panelists noted. Before he became involved in policy, Morrison said he thought that the NIH budget "just happened," with no behind-the-scenes work. Now, of course, he said that the role of scientists is integral to that process - "if you're not involved, you really get bad laws for bad reasons."

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