AAI President's Message

 

Jeffrey Frelinger, Ph.D. (AAI President, 2010-11)

I am honored to be able to serve as the 94th president of AAI. AAI is THE professional organization for immunologists and to be able to lead this wonderful group of scientists is indeed a great honor. I am humbled to be following in the footsteps of such distinguished immunologists as Karl Landsteiner, Michael Heidelberger, Elvin Kabat and my own mentor, Don Schreffler.

I remember the precise moment that I fell in love with immunology. Dick Dutton was being recruited to UCSD, where I was an undergraduate, and I went to his seminar. Until then I was completely engaged in developmental biology. After I heard Dick's talk, I thought, "Here is a simple system where I can study development in mammals." I was partly right, but not about the simple part.

We are now living in troubled times for all science. Before I tell you about my goals for this year, I want to spend some time telling you about problems facing all of us. The public simultaneously holds incompatible beliefs about science and scientists. They are: 1) science can fix everything if only they (that means us!) tried; and 2) a strong disbelief in many of the ideas that we as scientists hold as proven, such as evolution.

This is, in part, the fault of our education system, which does not engage students early enough or deeply enough to make them conversant (much less proficient) on even the most basic scientific concepts. But it is also our fault. We scientists do not explain our work. And when we do, we don't speak about it with the simplicity the public needs or the passion we feel.

Even some of those who should know better–who are in a position to educate and influence the views of others–can be seriously misinformed. In the 2008 Presidential election, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin ridiculed spending NIH money on drosophila research. Clearly and understandably, she did not know that the same signaling pathway functions in fruit flies' wing development can instruct us as to human T cell development. What is very worrisome is that she was not briefed on the value of this research by a scientific advisor, and that she failed to understand or appreciate that scientific peer review had determined that this research had merit and was worthy of NIH funding.

Therein lies the problem. How do we explain to the public not only these hugely complex biological systems, but also the process of peer review and its crucial role in advancing science? Are there any solutions? Sure, but finding them will require all of us. We all need to start by educating our cousins, nieces, nephews and neighbors (I assume that we have all already gotten to our children and parents!). Use every chance you get. At Thanksgiving, explain how your work is connected to both basic and applied science. At the neighborhood 4th of July BBQ, do the same thing. Explain why your own work is both cool and useful. Don't assume it's too hard to be understood. It's not really that difficult to explain the big picture. As Michael Jordan says for Nike: "Just Do It".

Just as importantly, talk to your congressional representatives, your senators, and their staffers. Many of you are in the Washington, D.C., area regularly. Lauren Gross at AAI (lgross@aai.org) will arrange a visit to your representatives. It's fun and different. She will keep you on-message and accompany you to the right offices. If you can't come to Washington, see your representatives at home in their district offices. Lauren can provide you with materials to help you do that on your own. Don't be afraid to talk with them about how important your work is to you…and to them. Tell them how essential a well-funded NIH is to you, your university, your city and state. Explain the connection between your work and clinical applications, even if it's distant. Don't fail to emphasize the economic impact of well-funded research programs on your congressional district. Large academic institutions are major centers of commerce which provide jobs and attract students who enhance the local economy. They are very important to your political leaders. In the Research Triangle in North Carolina, the total research expenditures of three institutions (University of North Carolina, N.C. State University, and Duke University) exceed $1.8 billion. As most of this is spent on personnel, these expenditures are the equivalent of more than 20,000 jobs at $50,000 for each job. In Tucson, my new home, the University of Arizona secures more than $400 million in research funding- providing many jobs to the Tucson economy. It is estimated that each new dollar from the outside results in about a two-fold multiplier, so this is not a trivial amount of money injected into the local economy. All of this is in addition to the impact on health from the outcomes of the research.

I have just written about what you can do for science. What can AAI and I do for you? During this year I will focus on three major issues. The first will be to continue to educate Congress and the public about the importance of our work. My goal will be to stress the connectedness of science–not simply its impact on a single disease. The second issue will be training. I hope to address the question of how many and what kind of immunologists we should be training. Are we positioning ourselves correctly for the future? Can we develop career paths that will accommodate team players as well as leaders? Can we find a way to allow excellent scientists who do not want to be PIs to still have rewarding and stable research careers? Finally, I will work hard on issues related to government regulation. For example, at institutions across the nation, IACUCs (which are required by federal law) are increasingly attempting to review science as well as animal care. As President, I will address "mission creep" and increased regulatory burden and make our concerns heard at every level.

Finally, I thank my mentors, colleagues, and students for all the learning opportunities that they have provided me over the years. I hope I can help provide some of the same to all of you in the coming year.

(Posted July 13, 2010)