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The American Association of Immunologists

AAI President's Message

Dan R. Littman, M.D., Ph.D.

HHMI Investigator and Helen L. and Martin S. Kimmel
Professor of Molecular Immunology
Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine
New York University School of Medicine

(AAI President, 2015-2016)

I feel privileged and grateful to have the opportunity to serve as President of The American Association of Immunologists (AAI) during the coming year. I am particularly fortunate to take on this position at a time when the study of immunology is more exciting than ever and provides ever-growing prospects for clinical benefit.

My first exposure to immunology was as an undergraduate, when I became fascinated by the big questions of how antibody diversity is generated, how T cells recognize antigen, and how immune tolerance is achieved. Even though we now have a deep understanding of these fundamental problems, many new questions continue to arise, particularly as it has become evident that functions of the immune system are critical in numerous chronic human diseases. The intersection of immunology with a growing number of disciplines guarantees that there will be many fascinating challenges for the next generation of talented young investigators to explore. The AAI will play an increasingly important role in helping to raise awareness of the importance of such research and ensure there is sustained funding for it. I hope you will join me in supporting the AAI in this important work.

When I was elected to the AAI Council five years ago, our community was already well into a process of self-examination. After the retrenchment in federal spending that followed the NIH budget doubling, our priorities needed to account for an influx of new postdoctoral fellows and a shift to emphasizing consortia and large center grants. There has been an erosion of roughly 22 percent in real dollars since the 2003 peak in the NIH budget, leading to a reduced emphasis on investigator-initiated grants and funding of basic science in general, as well as to a surfeit of talented and experienced young investigators competing for a limited number of research positions. Our junior faculty devote too much of their time to writing grants rather than at the bench and directly imparting their knowledge to their trainees. Many of our colleagues are facing staff reductions or even the closing of their laboratories despite their active contributions to advancing our understanding of the immune system. Several prominent investigators have chosen to accept positions abroad, motivated by more predictable funding. Fortunately, these problems are receiving increased federal attention, and there are hopeful signs that our legislators are responding by considering bills such as the “21st Century Cures Act” (which would significantly increase the NIH budget and provide more funding for both high-risk, high-reward research and early stage investigators) and the "Accelerating Biomedical Research Act" (which would allow for significant annual increases in NIH funding).

Each of my predecessors has highlighted this deepening crisis in our research infrastructure, and, as a result, the AAI has responded in an exemplary way, providing fellowships, travel grants, and educational opportunities that have had a major impact on our research community. This response was made possible by the wise leadership of the AAI by Executive Director Michele Hogan and her associates, and by my predecessors on the AAI Council, who helped institute novel programs to support investigators and promote educational programs for students and postdocs. The AAI can further contribute by reaching out to our membership for creative approaches to ensure that funding is sustained and that scarce resources are leveraged to foster high quality research. We must recognize that there are changes in how science is being done and that there is an opportunity for the AAI to provide further leadership to help maximize the ability of our members to contribute in the years ahead. This is clearest in the area of “omics” technologies, where spectacular advances during the past decade have brought all biomedical scientists up against a big data wall that most of us are unequipped to scale. This is especially true in the field of immunology. We are particularly fortunate to be able to study disease-related problems at both the cellular and organismal level, and the pace of data accumulation is astonishing. The new generation of immunologists will need training in “big data” to enable them to ask the relevant questions and develop or adopt the tools most appropriate to answer them. The AAI can play a significant role in making recommendations on the training of students and postdoctoral fellows, exploring ways to foster literacy in computational biology and transformative technologies, and helping ensure broader access to these technologies for AAI members.

Our AAI Committee on Public Affairs, working with Lauren Gross, the Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs, has done an outstanding job of reaching out to legislators to emphasize the importance of funding immunology research. We have made impressive and sometimes unexpected advances that we can present as evidence that our research makes a big difference. (Who would have predicted that immune system modulation would become the most attractive option for the treatment of cancers? Harnessing of host immunity to destroy cancer cells was viewed with almost universal skepticism.) We have the opportunity to contribute to a deeper understanding of many chronic human diseases now appreciated as being immune-mediated, and we must communicate this to the lay public, our representatives in government, and the administrative leaders of our institutions. We must, in particular, emphasize that the therapeutic breakthroughs that have made immune system modulation the hottest area in the pharmaceutical industry were brought about by advances in basic science laboratories. Although “personalized medicine” will clearly transform the practice of medicine in the years ahead, the NIH’s increasing emphasis on translational research, which has heavily influenced the leadership at the research institutions that most of us inhabit, can result in distorted priorities. One of my goals during the coming year will be to further emphasize the importance of fundamental discovery research, while also highlighting the need to train the new generation of scientists in the tools that will allow them to apply new knowledge to human biology. We must also enlist the support of the biotech and pharmaceutical industry sectors in advocating for sustained biomedical research funding, as their success is dependent on our continued contributions.

I am enthusiastic and optimistic as I begin this year of service to the AAI. I hope that you will join me in conveying this sense of possibility to those whom we encounter every day and help spread the message that immunological research is an endeavor that will increasingly touch more and more lives—and, hence, deserves universal support.

(Posted September 2015)

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