AAI President's Message

 

Arthur Weiss, M.D., Ph.D. (AAI President, 2008-09)

It is a great honor and privilege to serve as the President of AAI during this coming year. Ever since I was a graduate student 30 years ago, I've admired the leaders of AAI as great scientists who commanded respect for their achievements. To be counted among them is truly a great honor. During the last five years, I've also learned a great deal from my colleagues on the Council who have preceded me as AAI Presidents (Laurie Glimcher, Suzy Swain, Paul Allen, Lewis Lanier and Olja Finn). They have provided service to AAI through their many hours of hard work, thoughtful consideration, and sense of responsibility in preparing AAI for the future. I feel very privileged to have an up-close view of their terrific stewardship and vision and hope to follow their lead. Fortunately, I also have an incredibly dedicated and skilled Executive Director of AAI, Michele Hogan, to work with during the coming year.

Five years ago, when elected to the AAI Council, I did not anticipate the enormous challenges in funding facing us today; nor did I envision all of the changes that have occurred in how we communicate with each other. To be honest, I did not really understand and appreciate the importance of AAI's helping us handle such changes and challenges. I am concerned that some of our colleagues and trainees are now similarly unaware or have lost sight of the importance of AAI to the immunology research community. To most of us, AAI has represented the organization that publishes our work in The Journal of Immunology and sponsors the AAI Annual Meeting – the largest annual meeting exclusively for immunologists in the world. Certainly, there is a long list of other identifiable and valuable benefits to AAI membership. Of great importance are the career enhancements such as eligibility to serve on the editorial board of The JI; the opportunity to serve as a distinguished lecturer or as a scientific session chair at the AAI Annual Meeting; and the honor of being nominated for a prestigious career award. There are also financial benefits such as reduced meeting registrations, submission fee exemption for papers submitted to The JI, and significantly reduced color figure charges for papers accepted for publication in The JI. However, there are many additional important reasons to be a member of AAI that may not be as readily apparent. These include being a responsible member of and participant in an organization that represents your scientific community. This is especially critical during tough economic times when government policy is frequently responsive to the most highly visible and influential advocacy groups AAI has the resources to commit to a sustained effort of advocacy and education that individual scientists cannot take on. That said, however, I must emphasize that AAI is an organization that depends for its success upon its greatest resource, its members. During my term as AAI President, I intend to encourage greater communication with our members and participation by our membership in AAI activities and events. I want also to expand our membership to include all of those, especially our trainees, in the immunology research and educational community. To this end, I am asking each of you to recruit one of your colleagues or trainees to join AAI during the coming year.

Why make AAI membership a priority now, when many of us are facing funding constraints? The funding crisis at the NIH is clearly the most serious challenge confronting the U.S. scientific community in the past decade. From 1998-2003, we enjoyed a doubling of the NIH budget. Unfortunately, for the past five years, we have been facing NIH budgets that do not keep pace with the biomedical sciences inflation rate. As a result, NIH's purchasing power has dropped by about 10 percent since the "doubling" period ended in FY 2003. This has caused a drop in paylines throughout NIH; for example, NIAID paylines for R01 applications have plummeted from the 22nd percentile in FY 2001-03 to the 12th percentile in FY 2007 and 2008 (14th percentile for new investigators). There are many negative consequences of this funding crisis. Many young trainees, who have invested enormous time and effort in their training, have been discouraged by the prospect of an unwelcoming system and a difficult career path. Too many simply choose not to live out their dreams to become research scientists and leave the field entirely. The main recourse for the new or established individual investigator is to exhibit frustration and anger with the grants system and to spend enormous amounts of additional time writing more new grants and preparing resubmissions. As a consequence, NIH study sections have become overwhelmed by additional new and resubmitted proposals. It is during times like these that scientific societies such as AAI play critically important roles.

So, what does AAI do to address the current plight of its membership?

Taking a pro-active role to increase research funding and opportunities for our membership is a top priority for AAI. Consequently, AAI places a major emphasis on Public Affairs. Under the leadership of Bill Green (Chair of the Committee on Public Affairs) and Lauren Gross (AAI Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs), as well as many AAI members and staff, AAI stays informed, provides information or advice, and advocates on our behalf to leaders in the NIH and members of Congress. AAI works independently as well as collaboratively with FASEB to influence policy and funding priorities. Advocacy and educational efforts by AAI that target Congress and disease-specific interest groups can influence funding priorities. AAI provided recommendations regarding the recent initiative to restructure NIH grant submission and review processes to ensure that the grant preparation and submission process becomes less onerous while sustaining a fair review process. The Public Affairs Committee is studying ways of developing interfaces with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help our membership learn about opportunities for further involvement in its programs. The efforts of the Committee on Public Affairs to influence policy and funding are critically important to our membership. Outstanding financial management within AAI, thanks to Steve Burakoff (Secretary-Treasurer) and Jan Massey (AAI Director of Finance), has allowed resources to be committed to an even more aggressive approach to public affairs. As a consequence, during the past year the AAI Council recommended increased efforts and resources in public affairs to address the many challenges facing our scientific community. The active participation of our membership remains critical to these efforts.

Rapid changes in communications technologies have greatly altered the way we share and report our scientific advances.The Journal of Immunology has undergone tremendous changes to keep pace with the electronic era and has become even more widely available to the world's scientific community through global electronic subscriptions and a complete digital archive dating back to the first journal published in 1916. Under the very able stewardship of Bob Rich, our previous Editor-in-Chief (2003-2008), and Kaylene Kenyon, Publication Director, The JI adopted an evermore sophisticated electronic submission and review process that dropped the time from submission to acceptance of an article to just 35 days this past year; a remarkable achievement for the over 1800 manuscripts published in 2007. Bob added new sections that enhanced the journal ("Pillars," "Brief Reviews" and "In This Issue"). As a result, The JI is the most highly cited immunology journal, and the 16th most cited among all ISI-ranked biology journals. It ranks 6th in Impact Factor among immunology journals publishing original research. This success is possible through advances in digital publishing technology, outstanding staff at AAI, and active participation of our membership. The JI has now transitioned to a new Editor-in-Chief, Jeremy Boss, who has many new and exciting initiatives planned for The JI. Jerry has already changed the communication of The JI with podcasts of selected content and will be embarking on a "Publish Before Print" initiative for even faster dissemination of data. Jerry has expanded the scope of permitted "Supplemental Data" and has instituted a feature called "Extended Methods". However, the strength of this amazing journal relies on the AAI members who "give back" to their colleagues by serving countless hours as Deputy, Section, and Associate Editors. As one of the largest journals published in biomedical research (over 1,800 manuscripts published in 2007 and almost 12,000 reviews received!!), tens of thousands of hours are dedicated to the keystone of the scientific enterprise -- peer review. Almost 4,000 immunologists participate as reviewers and editors. There are many opportunities for our members actively to participate by submitting, reviewing and suggesting/commenting on new JI initiatives. Member participation is critical for the continued success of The JI, and I encourage your renewed and even increased involvement.

We are all very proud of the AAI accomplishments in the area of education. Our Education Committee, chaired by Peter Jensen, continues to do an outstanding job in coordinating many activities sponsored by AAI. Our Introductory Course in Immunology (directed by Terri Laufer) and Advanced Course in Immunology (directed by Marc Jenkins and Kris Hogquist remain well reviewed and incredibly well subscribed. Through the efforts of Olja Finn, we hope to sponsor additional foreign scholars to attend these courses as an effort to have more of an international impact on the immunology community. Brian Cobb chairs our very successful High School Teachers Program. The AAI website is playing an increasing role in educating the public about immunology and provides valuable resources. I hope that you will consider ways to enhance the educational objectives of this site.

We are in an incredible era in immunology when scientific advances in labs are being translated into new approaches to disease prevention (i.e., the HPV vaccine), diagnosis (i.e., subsetting of lymphomas and leukemias using monoclonal antibodies) and in therapies (i.e., the success of monoclonal antibodies and fusion proteins to interrupt key components of the immune response).

It is a time for all of us to celebrate these achievements and inform each other and especially the public about the success of immunology in advancing medicine and in advancing fundamental science. It is a time to encourage further support of research to capitalize on new technologies and the advances that have already been made. We hope to showcase these advances through our website, through our efforts in public affairs and education, and at our 96th Annual Meeting in Seattle in May. It should be a great meeting, and I hope to see you there!

Despite the obvious benefits of – and urgent need for – biomedical research, the President's recently released budget for FY 2005 proposes a paltry increase of $729 million (a 2.6% increase), for a total budget of $28.757 billion. Of that nearly $28.8 billion, $1.7 billion is directed to biodefense research (an increase of 7.5%, or $121 million over FY 2004). In addition, $237 million is directed to the NIH Roadmap initiative, an increase of $109 million over FY 2004.

Against this big-budget picture is the world in which we, as scientists, must operate. The federal budget dictates this as well. The NIH budget for FY 2005 projects an increase of 258 awards (10,393 awards, comparable to the projected total for FY 2003) following a projected decline of 258 awards in FY 2004. It also projects an aggregate increase of 1.3% in average cost for RPGs: a 1.9% increase for noncompeting awards and a 1.0% increase for competing awards. There is no increase for NRSA stipends, although the budget does propose to increase the number of full time training positions by 225. These miniscule increases paint a bleak picture indeed for those of us running labs, as well as for those seeking to begin their own research careers.

AAI is still analyzing the details of the President's budget for NIH and its implications for us as scientists. But the bigger picture is already clear: this year looks bad, and the four years beyond that may look even worse. While AAI, and we as individual scientists, must and will fight this, we need to confront the realities that many other sectors of the economy have already faced: diminishing federal support amid increasing need. With fewer resources leaving each of us less time for other matters, it is more important than ever to support AAI as it represents us on Capitol Hill. If you or your colleagues have not already joined AAI, I urge you to do so and let our numbers strengthen our already strong message.