AAI President's Message

 

Marc K. Jenkins, Ph.D. (AAI President, 2013-14)

YOU HAVE THE POWER!

Imagine a line graph showing the amount of fun a scientist has at his or her job on the Y-axis, and the years they have been in the field on the X-axis. In my case, the fun values were very high during my graduate school days as I got a first taste of immunology research and thrived on the scientific enthusiasm of my Ph.D. advisor, Steve Miller. The fun values remained high when I was a postdoc with Ron Schwartz in the intense and exciting scientific environment of the Laboratory of Immunology at NIH. I was also still having fun as a new assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, calling the shots as I started my independent research program, advising students, and doing professor "stuff." The fun dropped a bit with the decline in the NIH pay line in the early 1990s but came back in spades during the doubling of the NIH budget from 1998 to 2003. Unfortunately, I have to admit that my "fun line" has had a downward slope since 2003, and that's a bummer since the fun and excitement of science are big reasons many of us are in the business.

I suspect that I'm not the only one with a downward-trending fun line. It's hardly surprising, given all the events that have recently collapsed on professional scientists. NIH success rates are at an all-time low with no relief in sight. Young scientists are having a hard time getting their first grants, and other scientists are struggling to keep even long-standing grants. Dwindling resources and low morale have frustrated scientists and have likely contributed to a sometimes nasty tone in the review of both grants and manuscripts. Regulatory burden (including for the use of animal subjects, human subjects, and select agents) is increasing. And administrators at universities and other research institutions, under intense fiscal pressure, are measuring our scientific batting averages with stats that are not transparent, that we don't always understand, and that may unfairly disrupt or derail productive scientific careers.

The worst part is that we feel powerless to do anything about it. What we really need is an organization that empowers immunologists. Lucky for us, we already have one. It's called AAI!

It is in challenging times like these that AAI really matters.

AAI is the organization through which we can funnel our energies to advocate change in the system. AAI Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs Lauren Gross and her staff are working tirelessly on our behalf, educating our congressional representatives on the critical need to increase research funding. You have the power to help by participating in advocacy activities arranged by the AAI Committee on Public Affairs and by going with Lauren to visit your senators and members of Congress. I'm heading to the Hill this fall and hope to convince even "doubters" about the value of basic research and the importance of supporting NIH.

AAI owns and publishes The Journal of Immunology (The JI)—the most highly cited journal in the field. Think of how this journal—your journal—empowers your scientific activities. The JI offers you, as an author, an excellent venue for your research findings with little chance of having your paper triaged. The JI offers you, as a reviewer, a chance to read and select some of the best emerging research in the field. It also offers you the ability to give someone else the fair review that you would like to receive. The JI offers you, as a reader, confidence that the data published have been fully peer reviewed by practicing scientists who are leading experts in the field.

AAI hosts the largest annual all-immunology meeting in the world—one that offers an array of programs. In addition to cutting-edge science presented by many of the most prominent researchers in the field, the meeting provides a wide range of opportunities to trainees and early-career scientists. This meeting is the best venue for presentation of research from scientists at every professional stage. (Imagine your CV without those talks at AAI meetings!) It is the place where you can have spontaneous discussions about your work that may change your professional life, and there are workshops presenting strategies and tactical advice on navigating a science career. The AAI annual meeting is also psychologically empowering for its vast networking opportunities and as a venue for commiseration—a much-needed tonic in these trying times.

There may be areas where AAI could do even more to help its members.

One issue that concerns me relates to the use of publication metrics (e.g., Impact Factor) by universities to make important decisions about how scientists are hired, promoted, and given resources. As far as I can tell, many scientists are concerned about this practice but don't know how to influence it. I think AAI could help by explaining the intended purpose of this publication metric (i.e., to evaluate a journal rather than an individual author) and, therefore, clarifying its limited value in assessing scientists' accomplishments or careers. This is an issue in which AAI has just begun to engage and one that is worthy of our thoughtful consideration.

Immunologists at all career stages need to keep up with the latest cutting-edge technologies. Traditionally, the community has had a network for assistance whereby scientists or teachers could gain expertise by visiting a laboratory in which a new or particular technique is practiced. These initiatives, however, can be expensive, and in these financially difficult times, I would like to see if there is a role for AAI in assisting members with this aspect of their continuing education.

I'd like to leave you with the thought that we have some power over our fate in these difficult times. Going outside our comfort zone is the thing that could help the most: we can educate our policymakers in Washington about the critical value of basic research in advancing treatments and cures. We can invite our senators and members of Congress to visit our labs to see the value of their investment in their own state. We can also be better authors, reviewers, and mentors and engage in thoughtful debate about how we can best contribute to science and the scientific community. We can evaluate our field for its strengths and weaknesses and work hard to retain the trust and support of the public that funds our work. As the 97th president of AAI—which it is my great privilege to be—I 'll do what I can to help us all take on these pressing challenges in the coming year.

See you at IMMUNOLOGY 2014™ in Pittsburgh!

(Posted July 18, 2013)