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First in Science: Fighting for research, funding and the American way
Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! No—it's … a biomedical research Super PAC!
With researchers at pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology firms and academic institutions in this known galaxy scrambling for what remains of government funding following the devastating effects of the sequester, an independent expenditure-only political action committee—colloquially known as a "Super PAC"—is preparing to race to the rescue.
Able to leap across the Congressional aisle in a single bound, raise money for research-friendly political candidates faster than a speeding bullet and become a champion of the grant-seeking oppressed, First in Science is coming to an industry conference near you to inform you of its cause.
That's what Jim Lantry, First in Science's founder and a 35-year veteran of government and political campaigns, was doing when I caught up with him this month as I worked on our ongoing coverage of the impact the sequester is having on funding for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) (see "Sequester hits U.S. researchers hard," page 28). In fact, I first became aware of Lantry's efforts earlier this year when I wrote our first story about the sequester, "2013: 'A bad year to have a good idea,'" and I researched whether any Congressional officials had publicly addressed the $1.6 billion loss the NIH is bracing to accommodate. But the few officials I have been able to locate and contact in the months since have very little to say about the NIH's cuts, specifically, and in some cases, their staffs weren't even aware of their position on the issue.
This sounds like a job for First in Science, a new Super PAC that aims to increase research opportunity by organizing campaigns in support of candidates seeking political office who pledge to support government funding for biomedical research.
Giving me a ring from the recent Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies (FOCIS) conference in Boston, Lantry explains how he came to found First in Science. Working in both the private and public sectors as a lobbyist and political consultant for a wide range of industries, Lantry's former client list boasts the likes of General Electric, Home Depot, Exxon-Mobil, Dow Chemical, BP, Macy's, UPS and Safeway Stores. But it wasn't until last year, when Lantry met and married his Lois Lane—Dr. Linda Sherman, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.—that the political needs of the embattled biomedical research industry came to his attention.
"I've watched my wife try to write grants as her research budget has gone down," Lantry says. "A lot of her colleagues are going to Singapore, China, Korea, Australia and Europe. This was before the sequester even happened. When we got married last August, my social circle changed, and I'd meet people at functions who would always come up to me and want to discuss the need for federal research funding. Inevitably, when someone finds out what I do for a living, they point their finger at you and say, 'this is a problem with our government; you're a lobbyist, you should do something.'"
Lantry is of course aware of some of the controversy surrounding Super PACs and doesn't shy away from it. On his way back home to La Jolla, he jokes, "Super PACs are inherently different from political action committees—I like to say that the difference is, Super PACs wear a cape. "
"It used to be that PACs could give money to a candidate, but there were strict limitations on who the candidate could take money from or how much he could accept," he says. "A candidate could only take $5,000 from an individual. Obviously, if you are running a campaign today, $5000 doesn't do much. The average cost of a freshman campaign is $1.7 million."
With campaign finance laws becoming the Kryptonite of the PAC process, a recent Supreme Court decision—Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—held that "money is free speech, and corporations are people," says Lantry, "and that decision opened the door for Super PACs."
The way Super PACs, including First in Science, work is that a Super PAC can raise "an unlimited amount of money to support a candidate's campaign, as long as you do not coordinate with the campaign itself," Lantry says. "So essentially, you campaign side-by-side with the candidate, but you don't coordinate any messages with the candidate."
First in Science's goal is to raise $100 million to support candidates seeking office in 50 different Congressional races who are either pro-research or running against "people who are either neutral on science, or anti-science," says Lantry.
"We will ask these candidates to sign a pledge to support basic research funding and to bring that issue to the floor of Congress," he says. "When that person gets elected, they will have to take a firm position. They can't go back on that position if they were elected on that issue. There are two things politicians want: money and votes. They want money so they can get votes, and when we're talking about raising money to help get them into office, they won't turn their backs on it. I'm not saying we're painting them into a corner, but the people who voted for them who support investment in research will expect them to maintain that commitment."
Although First in Science's focus is on strengthening funding opportunities for biomedical research, "what we're really talking about here is the future of the American economy," Lantry says.
"If we don't invest in research like we have in the past, our economy will continue to deteriorate," he concludes. "There will never be a way to balance the budget if we don't invest in things that give us the potential for economic return."
And with so much hanging on that balance, it will be interesting to watch First in Science in action. So forget about that new Superman reboot, "Man of Steel," which is in theaters this summer, but my comic book-geek friends tell me isn't any good anyway. And pass the popcorn. Up, up and away with you, Mr. Lantry.