Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Getting Started as an Advocate for Research

Profile: Dr. Robert Wells, PhD
Robert A. Welch Endowed Professor of Chemistry
Director, Center for Genome Research at the Institute of Bioscience and Technology, Texas A&M Health Science Center, Houston, Texas

Dr. Robert Wells has a distinguished history as an outspoken advocate for science. I will profile Dr. Wells in two parts. First, I will introduce Dr. Wells and describe how he became involved in science advocacy and started influencing policy. The second part will describe when, years later, Dr. Wells used his considerable expertise in the policy arena to get an audience with the Vice President and increase the amount budgeted for science research.

Dr. Wells began his career in science under the tutelage of Dr. H. Gobind Khorana, the 1968 Nobel laureate for medicine/physiology. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1964-1966 Dr. Wells worked withDr. Khorana on his project uncovering the role played by the genetic code in protein synthesis.

In the early 1980s Dr. Wells was the Chair of the Biochemistry Department in the Schools of Medicine and Dentistry at University of Alabama, Birmingham. The department received an NIH training grant to educate young researchers and clinicians. Despite an excellent priority score on the grant renewal, in 1988 the program lost funding because the NIH had transferred the money into other areas.

Dr. Wells was determined to fight for the funding for this important program. He formed a coalition of training grant directors who had seen their funding evaporate. With their encouragement and monetary support he took their message to Washington. Dr. Wells targeted Senator Mark Hatfield [R-OR], who he knew was a supporter of medical research.

Staff members ushered Dr. Wells into the inner waiting room where he was among 40 people waiting to see the Senator. He was told that he had 10 minutes of the Senator’s time, and to be out in 12. Dr. Wells presented his case in the first 3 minutes of his allotted time, and it was immediately clear that Senator Hatfield was well informed about the topic and enthusiastic about changing the way our education system treats science and mathematics. Over an hour later, Dr. Wells emerged from the meeting with an ally in the struggle for expansion of the teaching grant program, and for science research in general.

The training grant program received the missing funding, and in 1989 Dr. Wells was invited to put together a cadre of biomedical researchers. Their job was to advise Senator Hatfield and Admiral James Watkins, Secretary of the Department of Energy, on ways to promote science and engineering in American schools. The result of this collaboration was the passage of the Excellence in Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Act of 1990.

Dr. Robert Wells demonstrates how one extraordinary man with a passion for scientific research can influence policy on a national scale. His experience in Washington proved that one person can make a difference.

Part two of the profile of Dr. Wells will describe another instance when he took his message to Washington- straight into the White House.

No comments:

Post a Comment