Tucker, Schumacher lobby for substance-abuse research funding

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Substance abuse and addictions cost American society an estimated $510 billion a year for health care, lost productivity and criminal justice expenses, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Research into causes and treatments is supported by the National Institutes of Health, but increasing or even maintaining funding is difficult in this economy.

Psychologists Joseph Schumacher and Jalie Tucker were among 100 premier U.S. substance-abuse researchers selected this past fall to help educate Congress about the dangers in cutting funding and the need to increase it. Schumacher and Tucker were the only two researchers chosen to lobby for the state of Alabama.

This past fall, the APA enlisted 100 premier U.S. substance-abuse researchers to help educate Congress about the dangers of cutting funding and the need to increase it. UAB’s Jalie Tucker, Ph.D., professor and chair of health behavior, and Joseph Schumacher, Ph.D., professor of medicine in Preventive Medicine, were the two chosen from Alabama.

Specifically, the scientists asked Congress to focus on four initiatives:

  • Supporting the House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee’s request for a $1 billion (3.3 percent) increase for NIH for FY2012.
  • Oppose amendments that would de-fund NIH peer-reviewed research projects.
  • Retain the Senate-passed funding of $581 million for the VA Medical and Prosthetic Research Account in the final FY2012 appropriations bill.
  • Retain the Senate Appropriations Committee’s $50 million in FY2012 for the Department of Defense Peer Reviewed Medical Research Program and maintain drug abuse as an eligible area of research for funding.

Each of the 100 scientists — including Schumacher and Tucker, who is a member of APA’s Board of Scientific Affairs — spent almost two days training to speak to Congressional leaders and staffers. “It was a cram course on how to advocate on The Hill when you have five minutes to make a point,” Tucker says. “The APA had specific people in Congress it wanted to hear its message, particularly Republicans and newly elected representatives,” Tucker says.

Tucker and Schumacher spoke to the staffers of Republican senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, Congressman Spencer Bachus and 7th District Congresswoman Terri Sewell, a Democrat who was first elected to Congress in November 2010.

Many conversations centered on encouraging them to oppose amendments to de-fund NIH peer-reviewed-research projects, especially those targeted because grant titles may be politically incorrect. “That threatens the peer-review process of selecting grants and research, and peer review is a time-tested mechanism through which NIH ensures that taxpayer-funded research is of high quality and high priority,” Schumacher says.

“Congressional staffers were not as aware of this as they were other issues,” Tucker says. “They were intrigued and wanted to learn more. They said, ‘We don’t want to mess with the scientific peer-review process.’ They seemed to appreciate the dual review process of an initial scientific review and a higher order council review that involves senior funding agency staff and lay people. They can shift priorities of approved grant applications after scientific review. They don’t do that often, but they can.”

Another reason the APA selected Tucker and Schumacher to lobby is because they are voters in their districts.

“Our local connection is very important,” Schumacher says. “They’re interested in the relationship with their constituency. We’re constituents as well as experts. And these members of Congress have offices in Birmingham, so we can invite them to see our work and clinics and continue to develop a relationship with them.”

Tucker and Schumacher also discussed some related issues with the staffers, including the importance of NIH funding to UAB — it received $270 million from the NIH in 2010, ranking 10th among public universities — and its research efforts, including addressing the HIV epidemic sweeping the Black Belt.