• Past Presidential
Holden Professor of Cancer Biology
Department of Microbiology & Internal Medicine
University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
(AAI President, 2012-2013)
It is my great pleasure and honor to serve the community of immunologists as AAI President in this, the 100th anniversary year of The American Association of Immunologists (AAI). Many of us have ”grown up” as scientists in The AAI, publishing our work in The Journal of Immunology (The JI) and presenting our newest results at the annual AAI meeting. The AAI has a long and highly successful history of promoting immunology and advancing the careers of its many members. Highlights of that history will be on view at the upcoming 2013 AAI meeting. AAI now enjoys the work and insights of its own staff historian, John Emrich, who will provide us with a valuable perspective on the development of the field of immunology, its leaders and innovators.
But what does AAI do for you today? Why should you join AAI or renew your membership? For most of us, research dollars are in shrinking supply, and for many, household dollars are constrained as well. So why spend precious funds on AAI membership? My many years of association with various aspects of the AAI have greatly impressed me with the caliber of our society. This can be credited in large part to the dedication, resourcefulness, and creativity shown by AAI Executive Director Michele Hogan and the AAI staff. They all work incredibly hard to promote immunology and collaborate with us to address the challenges we face.
Foremost among these is undoubtedly the difficult research funding situation. It was sobering to reread the President’s Message of my distinguished and able predecessors, from whom I’ve learned a great deal. In 2003, Laurie Glimcher warned of possible “smaller increases” in the NIH budget, which Suzy Swain (2004-05) warned “may even decline”, while Lewis Lanier (2006-07) and Art Weiss (2008-09) expressed concern that success rates for investigator-initiated grants might drop as low as 12-14% (!). Paul Allen (2005-06) predicted the possibility that “big science” could become more dominant in NIH-funded projects, at the expense of investigator-initiated projects. All this and more has come to pass, and we now face a crisis in research support that impacts all aspects of the scientific community. Promising and important research projects are being lost in large numbers. The new generation of scientists – so important for the success of future advances in research and its translation to better health – is considering other occupations. There are clearly no simple answers to these challenges. As your President, I would like to promote several areas where we can work together, with the help of AAI, to preserve opportunity for scientific progress – today and in the future – even in the face of difficult times.
The first is for each of us to take the initiative to advocate for the importance of immunology research. In recent years, some of the legislators on Capitol Hill who are most passionate about biomedical research have retired or been defeated in elections by opponents with little interest in research. Some in Congress even have a fundamental hostility towards science, and openly ridicule funded, peer-reviewed research because they don’t understand the project titles. There are, however, still many in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, who value the NIH and health-related research. We should keep in mind that every member of Congress has had friends and family members who have suffered from diseases in which the immune system plays a role. We as scientists have often underestimated the critical need to explain – clearly and often – the value and long-term importance of our research to our legislators and other non-scientists. Our fellow voters need to know why their tax dollars should be used to support scientific research, and our elected representatives especially need to hear, in concise and understandable language, how our research benefits our nation. While each of us bears the ultimate responsibility to advocate for biomedical research, AAI facilitates our efforts and the AAI Committee on Public Affairs (CPA) takes every opportunity to advocate on our behalf. AAI Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs Lauren Gross, who advises this committee, is eager to work with any of you to arrange a visit to your Congressional representatives when you are in Washington, D.C. In just an extra half-day of your time, Lauren will arrange all the logistics, accompany you, introduce you in a manner that makes you sound invincible, and prime you on how to best deliver your message (and what not to say). Both the health benefits and jobs created by research programs positively benefit not only our quality of life, but also both local and national economies, a message we need to deliver effectively – and often.
The second area on which I wish to focus effort is the training of the future biomedical scientific workforce. A thought-provoking report by the NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group has recently been released (see http://acd.od.nih.gov/Biomedical_research_wgreport.pdf or acd.od.nih.gov/bwf.htm > Biomedical Research Workforce Report). The recommendations in this document provide a springboard for potential new initiatives through which we can promote the career interests of current and future trainees. AAI already provides valuable advice and opportunities for young immunologists to explore and prepare for a variety of careers, including options other than traditional academic research. The AAI annual meeting, the largest annual immunology meeting on the globe, offers many opportunities for young immunologists to present their work and interact with colleagues, both professionally and socially. A session on careers in the biotechnology industry at the 2012 AAI meeting in Boston was full. And a new AAI fellowship in public policy (see http://aai.org/Public_Affairs/PPFP/index.html or aai.org > Public Affairs > Fellowship) is off to a highly successful start. I look forward to working with AAI staff over the coming year to strengthen and enhance career development for the next generation of immunologists.
A third important objective for me is to enhance the participation of my fellow immunologists in both scientific citizenship and dialogue, including national committees that bring forward new ideas to improve the scientific community, service in the scientific review process, and effective sharing of ideas to improve the impact of our efforts in scientific research. The current funding climate has increased our stress and workloads. But if we allow all that grant-writing to isolate us from fellow scientists, or disappointment in unfunded applications to embitter us, we lose much more than research dollars – we lose the collegiality, broader sense of purpose and “big picture” perspective that is so essential to driving scientific progress. We all want the best possible reviewers for our grant applications and manuscripts: colleagues who are knowledgeable, unbiased, and thoughtful. We must thus be such reviewers ourselves, agree to do our share, and do it well. The JI, the most-cited publication of peer-reviewed immunology papers, is proactive in constantly updating and improving the quality of its peer review process. Under the highly capable management of Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Boss and AAI Director of Publications Kaylene Kenyon, The JI has restrained “supplementary material creep”, and Jerry instructs his scientific editors to evaluate each review to ensure that requested revisions are truly important to support the central conclusions of the work presented.
We must also be active in sharing our views, ideas, and suggestions (not just our complaints) regarding peer review and research regulatory policies with the federal officials who make them. The AAI Council and CPA have both been active in this area, and I will work with these groups and AAI staff to solicit your views and most effectively represent you. To ensure the future of our profession, we must also identify the areas about which each of us is most passionate, such as education and training, national science policy, publication of scientific findings, diversity in the scientific community - and then take action to contribute our talents and efforts. It is too easy to think, “I’ll do this when I’m not so busy” – such a time will never come. None of us can do it all, but we can each do something. And we can work through the AAI to enhance and amplify our efforts.
An undergraduate research opportunity in the laboratory of the late Dr. Mortimer Bortin, who performed one of the first successful bone marrow transplants and pursued research on graft-versus-host disease, introduced me to a fascination with immunology that never ended. Despite the many troubles of our times, I strive to remember that we are still privileged to pursue a life focused upon inquiry and discovery. I look forward to working both with and for you in the coming year.
(Posted July 11, 2012)