Director’s Innovation Speaker Series: Your Role in Winning Hearts and Minds for Research
JOSHUA A. GORDON: Welcome, everyone, to this Director’s Innovation Speakers Series. I’m Joshua Gordon, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s really my pleasure to have you all here with us today and to have our guest for the day, Mary Woolley, the President and CEO of Research!America. We’re going to get started with our program in just a minute. Before we do that, let’s go through some housekeeping notes. Please remember that if you require technical assistance, use the Q&A box to communicate with a member of our staff. You can also use that Q&A box at any time to enter questions for our guest through that box. We will answer them towards the middle or end of today’s event. Also want to remind you that this webinar, as always, is being recorded. The recording will be made available publicly on our web page. You can see it written there on your screen.
If you like this webinar and you’d like to share it with your friends or family or loved ones or enemies, whichever, please feel free to do so. And/or if you have to step away, you can rest assured you can see the rest of it on that website. It will take us a few weeks to get it up because of the technical stuff we have to do, but it will be there for your enjoyment. Let me introduce our guest for today. Mary Woolley, as I mentioned, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Research!America. Mary has been in that position since 1990, which means for more than three decades, Mary has been the chief advocate for science, discovery, and innovation, really, in the United States. Research!America is focused on advocating for science to achieve better health for all of us. Mary has done amazing work in that capacity, advocating for science across the federal government and beyond.
She’s been recognized for that amazing work, having been elected a member of the National Academy of Medicine, serving two terms on its governing council. She’s a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has served on the National Academies of Sciences Board on Higher Education Workforce and Board on Life Sciences.
She’s received a number of awards for her advocacy work, including awards from various universities, honorary degrees, awards for special work for science advocacy from FASEB, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, and lots more. One I think was my favorite, Mary, from your CV, which was the PBS, Public Broadcasting System’s Favorite Unsung Heroes recognition. I think that speaks loudly.
Mary holds honorary doctoral degrees from Wayne State University and Northeast Ohio Medical University. Really, she’s used her liberal arts background, her knowledge of sociology and political science and her experience working at a science institute in San Francisco, and carried that with her as she’s advocated, again, for over three decades for science in the U.S. Mary, it’s a pleasure having you here today. We’re going to have a conversation in just a few minutes, but I know you wanted the chance to introduce some of the ideas and methods you’ve used over the years. Please take it away and then I’ll come back in a few minutes to join.
MARY WOOLLEY: Thank you so much, Dr. Gordon, Josh. It’s a pleasure to be with everyone today. I look forward to telling you a little bit about our work and then to a conversation. I am going to be talking about advocacy. Let me first say something about Research!America. We were established in 1989. I wasn’t there at the beginning but knew about it and joined shortly thereafter. We bring stakeholders together. That’s one of the unique things about our alliance. Patient groups are a big part of what we do and they’re a big part of advocacy for medical and health research. We are, we consider ourselves innovators in advocacy and we strongly support your work and we do so with pride.
One of the things we’ve done over the years is advertising. Campaigns aimed at the broad public occasionally, but more often at opinion-leaders and deciders and influencers. Our very first campaign featured Dr. Koop. He who, not only was surgeon general, but often was spoken of as the kind of face that ought to be on Mt. Rushmore. This campaign, which started in 1993, ran for five years in video format on many public broadcast channels. Also, there’s a poster version that I still see from time to time in laboratories around the country.
Our most recent campaign is live right now. It’s about the importance of investing in NIH, and running in the Wall Street Journal online version, among other places. There’s been lots of ads between then and now.
One of the things we do is build champions and recognize them. Champions in the Congress. This slide shows you some of whom we’ve recognized in the most recent years, but we’ve been doing this for almost 30 years. You’ll see now-President Biden, but we recognized him when he was vice president. All of these people care deeply about the work that you do and have their ways, over time, and often with very high impact, in advocating for and assuring funding and a strong policy environment for research for health.
One of the ways I like to show, especially members of the NIH community, how important policymakers are and how important in a bipartisan way that they are, is to remind us all of the names that are on the buildings on the main campus of the NIH. You can see here that there’s seven democrats, six republicans, and one member who was very strongly associated with Research!America, and a mentor of mine, Paul Rogers, whose name appears on the plaza in front of so-called Building 1, which is also the James Shannon Building, not that Dr. Shannon was a member of Congress.
One of my points in showing this slide is to demonstrate there are many more buildings with numbers that could have the names of members of Congress and there’s many members of Congress. We work with those people. I’m proud of having been president when the building was dedicated for Senator Blunt last September at NIH. He was pretty darn proud, too.
One of the other things we’ve done for a long time is commission public opinion surveys to keep a finger on the public pulse. I know that many, if not all of you, are scientist and you love to look at data. Let me assure you that elected officials, and those who want to be elected, also love looking at data. A different kind of data, however.
Public opinion survey data is much more amenable to change over time, but if you lose track of it, you lose track of your ability to be elected and potentially re-elected. Here you have President Lincoln’s words on that point.
This is just a slide on methodology. The most important thing to know is that these are the same kinds of- the surveys we commission are the same kinds of surveys you can see day in and day out in the media, all kinds of media, whether it’s Pew, Gallup, Kaiser, any number of surveys.
One of the questions that we’ve asked over time, and there’s a huge library, if you will, of trend data and individual survey data on our website. We’re overhauling that right now, but it’s mostly available. One question is, what is the single most important health issue facing the U.S.? You think back 30 years ago, it wouldn’t take much time, I’m sure, before you would all say, oh, HIV/AIDS, of course. And it was, 30 years ago, the top most important health issue named. In January of this year, the top issue named was the cost of healthcare. Last two years it was COVID. Not a big surprise, right? Huge percentages, like 30, 35 percent. Now it’s settled down a little more, but the cost of healthcare has been near the top of the list for the last about five, six years. Mental health has been moving up steadily.
As you look over this full array of diseases, conditions, issues, you’ll see that there are connections to mental health in many of the others that are listed, including, of course, opioid addictions, suicide, of course, and aspects of many other diseases.
It’s not surprising to us that nearly, well definitely, three-quarters of the American public say that there is a mental health crisis in the U.S. today. You know that. We all know that. Our own experience - it’s certainly true in my family- is that the crisis level has visited us all, everyone. Our families, people we know.
It didn’t used to be talked about very much, but I think we’ve gotten beyond, perhaps, some of the worst of the stigma, although there’s still plenty of it out there. People are very aware and very concerned. You can see here that 82 percent of the public- and this is a survey we commissioned in partnership with the Dana Foundation last summer- 82 percent say that they know someone or have themselves experienced a condition such as those which are listed here. This is, let’s remember, this is people’s recollection and impression, it’s not actual prevalence data.
We also asked people- this is a word cloud- to give us words that best reflect their attitudes toward- now we’re calling it ‘brain health research.’ The Dana Foundation encouraged us to use that wording.
You can see the positive words definitely outweigh the negatives, although, of course, there are some concerns. We need to listen to them as a community and be responsive and not be dismissive of people who say or convey skepticism. After all, it’s something we value in science and it’s a way to change the conversation. If you’re talking with someone who outright says they’re skeptical, or is saying things that reveal skepticism, say, hey, you’re thinking like a scientist. That’s how I was trained. It’s reasonable and appropriate to ask questions about science.
Here is the question about, now let’s talk about who’s going to pay for science. What about federal funding? Let’s question how important is it to increase federal funding for research in brain health? It’s important in this and in, I would say, I know, in all public opinion survey work, to combine the positives and the negatives because there’s evidence that some people will never say the most extreme. They’ll never say, on a scale of one to 10 that 10 is their answer. They’ll say eight or nine. Or they’ll say something more in the middle, but if you add all the positives and all the negatives, you get a truer sense of public opinion.
That’s how we get to four and fives agreeing that it’s important to increase federal funding for brain health research. In this slide, we’ve also broken it down by self-reported political identification. Usually we only show that if it’s significant, if it’s statistically significant. It is here, although it’s not wildly different by party.
We also asked a question at a different time and in a different survey, about whether people think federal investment in mental health research is adequate. Now this is mental health research, so slight difference in wording, and the question is worded differently. Here you see that only 21 percent say that it’s adequate. That’s a pretty small percentage, with significant numbers saying they don’t know.
Just in case you think we can’t afford more research on brain health or on mental health, think of some comparisons. This is the videogame market in the U.S. at almost $100 billion and twice the budget of the full NIH. You can read the rest about how much it could fund. We never suggest that there’s a trade-off, we should stop the videogame business. Some people might argue that, but rather, just to be clear, this is a wealthy country. If we choose to spend more dollars on medical and health research, we can do so. It’s not because the dollars don’t exist. Another example is that we’re going to spend an estimated $8 billion on the Fourth of July coming up soon. That would tide you all over for a while, right?
Another question, because not all the news is good. This is a long-standing question. Percentages went up substantially during the pandemic, to as “high” as 37 percent of Americans saying they could name a living scientist, largely because of recognition of Tony Fauci. Over the years, it’s hovered around 20 percent. That is not very many. That’s not a very high percentage. It reveals that the science community is essentially invisible among the public at large. That’s not healthy for us, that’s not healthy for achieving the promise of science. We’ve got a lot of ideas about how to change that. I show you this just to demonstrate that that recognition is quite low.
Similarly, and this is kind of shocking, only 41 percent of Americans can name anywhere where medical or health research is conducted. Now we’ve gone from science broadly to medical or health research. You can see NIH there at eight percent. That is not a high percentage. Others that are listed, they’re in the ‘other’ category. There are many, many state universities listed, some hospitals, a variety, this and that, but very low recognition of any one of them, as you might expect for a national survey. Nonetheless, the overall point is, this isn’t a hard question, and yet, a blank. Inability to respond is shockingly high.
Just one more on that, and this is very politically relevant, only about half of Americans are aware that medical and health research is conducted in all 50 states. Of course, the members of Congress from all 50 states have to be aware and have to hear from people in their own states how much they value the fact that, not only is research happening in the United States, but close to home. We’ve got a way to go on that.
I heard Larry Tabak, with his awkward title that’s his official title right now, but we all know what a great job he’s doing at the helm of NIH, I heard him make this comment during our awards program in March of this year, just a few months ago during a panel discussion. We gave him a well-deserved award, I might add. He’s pointing out how important it is for scientists to become more knowledgeable and conversant with science policy with communication. Becoming better communicators and learning how to engage more effectively with the community. These are all things that Research!America cares about deeply. We didn’t write his speech, but boy were we glad to hear him say it. I talked to him about it subsequently, and know how passionate he is about valuing public engagement and better science communication.
We know, again, from our commissioned surveys that people overwhelmingly remember to add very and somewhat important here. Ninety percent of the public, 91 percent, believe that it’s important for scientists to inform the public about their research and its impact on society. By informing I don’t mean through the scientific journals, but rather in everyday ways - around the Thanksgiving table, over the fence, at your kids’ soccer game. It goes on and on.
It is part of your responsibility, we feel, the responsibility of everyone in and around the science community, to get engaged, to win hearts and minds for science. You have to do that. You can’t just wish it. You have to really get going and speak up. Be active. These are the words of former congressman and our former chair, John Porter, whose name is on the largest research building on the NIH campus, as you know, the John Porter Neuroscience Research Center.
I’m going to finish up by just saying I encourage you to put a human face on research. Put your face on it. Don’t hide out. Don’t step away from the opportunity to talk about how proud you are to serve the public’s interest. I think that the easy, easy way to help overcome invisibility and drive, increase public awareness and support, are four words to say when somebody asks you - maybe it’s your great-uncle or someone you just met - I don’t really understand. Tell me what you do. Remind me what you do?
The thing to say is not, I’m a neuroscientist. You may be and you might get there, but rather, I work for you. I work for you. I serve the public’s interest. My colleagues and I are trying to find the solutions to what ails us in so many regards. Day in, day out, we’re dedicated. I work for you. I’d love to discuss with you what your concerns are and what your suggestions are for the future of science and medical and health progress.
I’ll just conclude by saying I have the great privilege of working for you, the people that do science. We’re advocates and proud advocate. I’m delighted to have had this opportunity to share some thoughts and look forward to a good Q&A. Thank you.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: Thanks, Mary, for that introduction to what Research!America is about, what advocacy is about, and the illuminating data that you provided as well. I’m going to start with one of those, and of course, thank you for pointing out the rising importance of mental health issues to the American public.
Also, something that we don’t always see at NIMH, but that there is a certain level of trust or expectation amongst the American public that investments in mental health research will help alleviate those problems.
It strikes me, and others have commented on this as well, and you talked about it, that we seem to be at a moment in our society around mental health, around the willingness to wrestle with these issues, the recognition of its importance. That provides us with an opportunity to emphasize the importance of mental health research.
You’ve been around a while, you’ve seen other moments for other parts of health, and I’m wondering if you might- if there are lessons that we can draw from other moments in health history, whether it be the AIDS epidemic or whether it be other things that have come along the way that we can learn, in terms of trying to understand how best to ensure that the role of research is appreciated as we try to address the current mental health crisis.
MARY WOOLLEY: I would say, Josh, probably the most important factor when you go back and look historically, what really changed things, is the participation of advocacy groups, patient advocacy groups in driving recognition and ultimately support. Go back to polio, for example, where it was the March of Dimes that called attention to and actually raised money, a dime at a time, which was worth a lot more than it is today, to assure that research would be conducted more quickly and become available in terms of, ultimately, vaccine.
Then you move forward to cancer groups, led by Mary Lasker and others, who assured the passage of the National Cancer Act and a great deal of activity assuring that we’re going to get more research in cancer.
Then women’s health- there’s certain, really big high marks and the women’s health advocacy community at the end of the 80s and early 90s changed things substantially, calling for and finally winning, an act of Congress, which is what it took to make sure that women were included in clinical trials at NIH and other things that impact women’s health. It took not just the goodwill and good intentions of the science community, but it took people outside the science community to persuade their elected representatives that things had to change.
We’ve already referred to HIV/AIDS. I would add there’s been a longstanding push from the heart disease community, very sophisticated and high-impact work for decades that has pushed and sustained strong research in cardiovascular disease and stroke. There’s also, now let’s get to- of course there’s COVID more recently- but let’s get to mental health.
I agree with you that this is the time. You can see it in rising, heightened concerns. You can see it in our trend data. You can see it in everyday media. We can see it in conversation. I happen to be at the Aspen Ideas Health Conference in Colorado right now, where many sessions on mental health, and some of them will get into research on that. I’ve been coming to this for a long time. Never seen this level of attention. That’s just one little marker, but there are many.
It’s important to partner with the patient community. Looks like One Mind, whom I know you know well, and so do I, but many others, many others, are working with that end in sight. We’ve got to realize faster- sooner rather than later- that we need the insights of those with lived experience at the beginning of the research process, not just at the end. It has to be there at the beginning, and people sometimes think that’s going to be a lot of work and not worth it, but experience overwhelmingly shows that it pays off.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: We are seeing that more and more in our communities, too, Mary. The recognition of the need to incorporate the voices of lived experience. You’re emphasizing both, really, the need to include that when we think of advocating for our work, but also the need to include it when we think about the kinds of research that we’re conducting.
Another area that we see more movement towards is the increasing recognition that, for mental health and many other forms of health, there are substantial social determinates of health that we need to incorporate into our biological models. Has that been- have you seen that? We definitely see it in the mental health space. I’m wondering if you notice that in terms of what you’re seeing in advocacy and on the science side, across other aspects of science as well?
MARY WOOLLEY: Definitely and actually it’s one of the questions in our full battery of commissioned public opinions surveys. We ask about social and behavioral determinates of health. We stumble over that wording because it’s awkward in a public opinion survey, so we have some different ways of getting at that point. We see a lot of that.
Actually, I was just introduced today - I told you I was at this conference - to the concept of accessibility of information being another determinate of health. I hadn’t really thought of- it’s obvious in a way, but I hadn’t really thought about it, especially when you think about mis- and disinformation. That’s another one of the determinates of health that needs more attention. We need more research on it, on all of the social and behavioral determinates of health.
We need to put more social science to work. That’s not just because I’m trained as a social scientist. We need the insights of social scientists and more research in these areas so that we’re doing evidence-based interventions where we can, evidence-based healthcare delivery. It has to be a value of ours. We need more of it.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: Thank you. I want to remind the audience that you can pose questions at any time through the Q&A function. Please go ahead and enter all your questions in there. We will be turning to audience questions in just a few minutes.
You mentioned in your last answer that language for these polls can be very important. You pointed out, as you were going over the data, that you’ve used two kinds of language to refer to mental illnesses and other neuropsychiatric illnesses in these polls. You’ve spoken- in the past you might have used the words ‘mental health,’ and in the more recent survey you used the words ‘brain health.’ Was that a conscious decision? What went into that decision? What do you see as differences, either in the approach or the outcomes of the polls, when you use those two different kinds of language?
MARY WOOLLEY: Your first point’s absolutely right. Words matter and public responses to words change over time. Before I get to the exact point here, I want to mention another example. Back in the early 90s, late 80s, early 90s, the term bio-anything was very scary to people. They equated it often with biohazard and with other kinds of bio-dangers. Now that has decreased over time, but for a long time, we didn’t use it at all.
That’s how we got to the medical and health research kind of wording that we use routinely. Could also use research for health. That’s even broader. We, I should say, not just I, Research!America’s thinking about adopting that as what we use routinely.
We still don’t even use biomedical very often, although it’s hard to avoid it. It’s in the zeitgeist at this point, but it often comes across to social scientists, for example, as excluding them, even if it’s not intentional. That’s the way it feels.
So, mental health and brain health research. This is new, this distinction for us, and it was really the Dana Foundation, in the work we did with them in planning for the survey that we commissioned, urged us to - they felt, their leadership and advisors and so forth, felt that there was some benefit in trying this out. You could compare it to how responses to the wording ‘mental health’ went. I would say this isn’t something I have the final answer on. Far from it. I would actually be interested in your point of view as to which you think is more likely to resonate with people. Forget about whether it would push them into more positive attitudes, but what really resonates with people?
JOSHUA A. GORDON: It’s interesting, I think you’ll get different answers depending upon which part of the population you’re talking about and what the focus is. For example, when I speak with certain segments of our research and practice community, psychosocial therapists, psychologists, social workers, et cetera, if I use the word brain or neurobiology, they feel excluded by that. They feel like the practices that are associated with psychology, with psychotherapy, et cetera aren’t brain-related, whereas I feel very strongly that they are. They can recognize a locus of action of those therapies is in the brain, but nonetheless, they feel somewhat excluded.
There are many segments of our advocacy community that really prefer recognizing - I shouldn’t say prefer, they really emphasize the need to recognize that mental illnesses are illnesses of the brain. They feel comforted and legitimized when we use brain-focused language because, too often, psychology-focused language or mind-focused language, is stigmatized and/or felt like it’s blaming the individual for lots of historical reasons.
I think it’s a really interesting question and I’d love to see that comparative analysis of people’s attitudes around research, et cetera, when we’re talking about mental health versus brain health. We’re stuck with the moniker NIMH. It was given to us by congress 75 years ago. We’re very proud of it, but anything we can do to try to clarify what our mission is, is always helpful for us.
MARY WOOLLEY: Well said. I actually think delving into this more deeply has to go beyond surveys and really is focus group work. It ought to be done.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: I want to make one more comment on the brain issue and then I want to go to a question from the audience. Brain health is more inclusive and it’s more multidisciplinary. There are, as you know, 11 institutes and centers that have some degree of neuroscience or brain focus to them. It’s one of the joys of my job and that of many NIMHers, to be able to collaborate across those boundaries. When we do think of brain health, it is more holistic, and that’s definitely a plus.
I want to take a question from one of our audience members. It has to do with helping increase public awareness.
Can you talk about possible approaches that could be applied to early education to improve public awareness and understanding of all these issues surrounding scientific research?
MARY WOOLLEY: Sure. I’ll give you a few thoughts on that, but I want to emphasize that Research!America is not focused on K-12 or even before that. I will say, though, that there’s a role for members of the science community in education, once you are already scientists. For example, think of the difference it would make if there were a scientist on every school board in this country. Think about that.
Often in talking to scientific audiences, I would say, if you don’t feel like you could do that personally, because it often requires an election, support another scientist who would do that. So, get involved that way so that then the curriculum starts reflecting more evidence-based education around science, because science is being taught. It is being taught, it just may not be taught very well or in the moment or very often. There’s a whole list of things.
And being involved in your own kids’ education often happens with scientists, but not always. I remember very well when my kids were little, being in public school, volunteering to be in charge of the science fair- everybody has science fairs. I thought the matter of getting judges would be a snap because I knew a lot of scientists. It was extremely difficult. I practically had to beg people, and that was in Berkley, California.
There’s a lot of ways to get involved without me trying to pretend to be an expert in early education. My expertise, my concern, is what are members of the science community doing or not doing and could do?
JOSHUA A. GORDON: Great point. I have my own experience with my own kids. I would bring in a human brain into their classroom in the fourth grade and show them that and a primate brain and a mouse brain and talk about how we try to use research to draw conclusions. A lot of fun and I think most people who do engage in that kind of work find out how rewarding it is. It’s a great point. All the scientists on the call, hope you’re listening. Hope you’ll have opportunities to do that.
Want to take another question. It goes back to earlier in your talk when you discussed the need to create champions. It’s really a very straightforward question. What does creating champions mean?
MARY WOOLLEY: It takes time. It takes time and it takes a lot of people’s efforts. To start with, knowing - it’s shocking to me, but I know it’s a fact that many members of the science community do not know who represents them in the Congress? They might know, might, know who their senators are, but they may not even recognize those people on the street when they’re at home on a weekend, say, at Starbucks, let’s say. Ask yourself, would you recognize your member of Congress by sight?
The second question, typically in a science audience where I can see people, I ask people to raise their hand if they would recognize- I might get one or two out of 500. The second question is, would they recognize to you? Typically, nobody raises their hand, unless they happen to be related to a member of Congress or they’re the president or dean of a university and they consider it their business to know their member of Congress. Actually, if you’re a constituent, and you are a constituent, even if you aren’t a voter, you’re a constituent of a member of Congress.
They’re interested in your point of view, so approaching - this is something everybody can do- approaching your member of Congress is one of the ways to, number one, to thank them for their service, whether you agree with their positions or not. They’re doing something that you’re not. You’re not elected. Secondly, to say that you have in common with them serving the public’s interest, because you do.
There are very few people who are self-funding their own science, so that money is coming from the taxpayer, possibly from consumer dollars or philanthropic dollars, but not out of your own pocket.
You are serving somebody else’s interests and saying the public interest is a very good way to go about it and have a conversation. If we had- if every scientist were doing something to make the case, and people around the science community, not only the scientists themselves- were doing something month in, month out, not a lot.
You can send an email to get my weekly letter to give you an idea. It’s on Thursdays, Thursday evenings, every week. It’s free. Give you some ideas about how to make actions that are appropriate given that you serve the public’s interests. The thing you can’t do, I’m sure somebody’s got this in their mind, that you can’t do, unless it’s part of your job description, is speak for your institution. When you’re talking to your elected officials, first of all, find out who they are. Secondly, remember that you’re speaking for your own interests. You, a voter, a constituent.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: Those of us who may not be as comfortable with the notion of approaching our elected officials. You’ve had the experience of talking to many of them, I’d imagine, over the years. Are they real people?
MARY WOOLLEY: Sure they are. Of course they are. You’re talking to, literally going up to a member of Congress because you recognize them on sight at the Starbucks, is an easy way to practice this. Sometimes those aren’t members of Congress. I’ve done that. Oh, Congresswoman. Who do you think I am? But that doesn’t hurt anybody. They are used to- members of Congress are used to having people come up to them. How you do that conversation, however, is the real, at the crux of it.
Starting with thanking them for their service and saying that you serve the public also is tried and true. I know it works. We get a lot of reinforcement for that. Building champions takes a lot of people and a lot of time, including those whose job it is to work at it, and that includes us. We find that when we take people to- my colleagues and I- take people to a meeting on Capitol Hill, which now is increasingly virtual, but now is going back to in-person, it’s very helpful to take a young scientist along and ask that person to tell a bit of their story, how they’re serving the public’s interest, cause people relate very quickly to those who are going to be the next folks, the next generation that might save their life, literally, or that of a loved one. You don’t even have to say that out loud. People get it.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: And certainly those personal stories, they, I see that in my interactions with Congress, my interactions, they tend to be official interactions, and I just want to remind all our federal employees on the call, that if you do this, you do it as a private citizen. You made the point that you’re representing yourself.
But of course, there’s also others than NIMH on the call and I have colleagues out there in the academic community who have also really enjoyed having a role to play in public policy by interacting with their local congressman, their local senators. I’ve had the pleasure of joining some congressmen and senators on visits to academic institutions. In that, I’ve found that they are every bit as awed and curious and excited about scientific discovery, about clinical breakthroughs, about treatments that work for their constituents, as the most committed scientists are.
Do you have a story, maybe a favorite story, if not, just a particularly poignant story of an interaction that you’ve witnessed in that way, working with the legislators over the years?
MARY WOOLLEY: Of course I have my favorite people who, in many cases, became members of the board of Research!America, and they’re just dear to my heart. Maybe the ones that aren’t so friendly and wonderful are, in some ways, more meaningful because you have to figure out how to make that work, too. Like going to see a person who will remain nameless, a member of Congress who had a banner over their door - If you’re coming here for money, go away. That can be challenging because you are going there, ultimately, for money, but you can turn it into saving money. If we can prevent disease and disability, we can save money, but it’s a pay me now or a pay me later kind of conversation.
Another one which just demonstrates people can sometimes not use their heads when they go on visits to members of Congress. I remember going to visit a woman member who is no longer serving, but is retired, and was instrumental for science broadly. Very, very positive. In visiting this member, I went as part of a group, but I wasn’t in charge of it, I would not have planned it this way, I must say.
There was nobody there from her home state, which is a silly oversight. There were no other women except me, and were quite a few men. That was just dumb. We didn’t just think - they, the group that organized it- and I’ve made my own set of mistakes, don’t get me wrong, but didn’t think through what was going to instantly resonate with this particular member of Congress. That’s being from her state, being knowledgeable about the issues in her state that she was concerned about, but rather thinking that because we’re important scientists, you will surely care about what we have to say. Not good.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: I’m going to turn now back to another question or two from our audience members. I’m going to combine two of them because I think they’re relevant to each other. The first was, how can NIMH engage the wider public in support of the basic science research it supports? Really focusing in on that basic science, fundamental science aspect. What are effective strategies in that area?
A related question is around animal- research involving animals. There’s a lot of activism in that area. Our NIMH investigators have been the subject of quite a lot of harassment, frankly. What are ways that we can defend and support the use of basic science research inclusive of the animal models, which are so crucial in mental health research. Can you tell us something about that?
MARY WOOLLEY: From a couple of perspectives, yeah, sure. First of all, I didn’t show you any survey data, but we have it on both those topics. First of all, the public is actually quite positive about basic science. Assuming that they’re not is a big mistake, just to start with. In focus groups, so we did, and it has been a while, but I would be surprised if anything had changed. We asked people, why is it that people are so supportive, here’s this data, of basic science? Somebody said, well, you’ve got to start somewhere. You can’t start at the end. You’ve got to do the basic work first.
There’s a lot of arguments in the science community about whether the right word should be ‘discovery research.’ I think maybe discovery is better, but I don’t have very strong feelings, and really no data behind me when I say that. Assuming that people don’t like it is a huge mistake. That’s number one.
Secondly, assuming that they want to know everything you know is also a mistake. It’s like the difference between being able to drive a car and knowing how the engine works. You don’t have to know how the engine works, you’re just glad it does, and you want to know where you can go to get it fixed if it stops working. The fixed idea that people must know what I know about science. It’s not useful in winning hearts and minds for research.
I have some of the same feelings about the use of animals in research. That one, I was up close and personal on that in the Bay area many years ago now. I know how strong and fierce and dangerous and illegal, life-threatening, activists can be. It’s not a joke. I was afraid for my family at one point. We were doing animal-based research in the institute that I was privileged to lead at that point. There was no substitute at that point for being out front.
As the leader of it, I took on this role. On television, other kinds of media. Social media didn’t exist at that point. In talking clearly and in short form, not long, about the importance of animals in research.Sometimes that came down to - people’s minds you cannot change. I remember one conversation with a woman who felt very strongly that animal research should not be used in helping- this was training, so it wasn’t research - training young, I should say early career surgeons, heart surgeons. I asked her, would you rather they did their first work with you?
She said, yes, they should. With me and people, maybe prisoners. Now it’s shocking, of course, and totally immoral and dangerous in many ways, in every way. There are, we often say, there’s probably 10 percent core of people whose minds we are never going to change about the value of responsible conduct of animal research. We’re never going to change them. To assume that the other 90 percent feel the same way is a mistake. It’s not true.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: I want to come back to that first part of your answer around basic science in general. I’ll just note that, in your talk earlier about the importance of engaging with patient advocacy groups. One of the closest relationships that we have, several of the closest relationships we have with advocacy organizations are indeed with patient advocacy groups. I regularly go to the Mental Health America and National Alliance of Mental Illness meetings and present about NIMH research.
I have to tell you, the thing I get the most interest in, the most questions about, the most excitement about, every talk I give, I try to talk some about our clinically oriented research, our translational service research, and talk about a basic science finding, something that I think they might find interesting and exciting. I agree 100 percent because they, even these individuals who are really pushing us to do research that’s going to benefit them, they’re giving us that voice of lived experience, saying these are the problems that we need solved. They appreciate and recognize the importance of basic science research, the importance of animal research in that context.
MARY WOOLLEY: Could I just add one more about that? I think what people are really saying often is, why aren’t we moving faster to find the answers? It’s not any particular kind of science. There are some people worried about a particular kind of science, but really it’s, get me to the cure faster, or the prevention. That gets back to them because if you tell your member of Congress that there ought to me more, not less, research, then we can get there. You can’t do it with one hand tied behind our back, which is pretty much what the funding situation is right now.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: I want to go with another question from the audience. You’ve spoken about the need, but I think this is an interesting question. How can we inspire future generations - I presume you mean future generations of scientists - to get involved in advocacy work, particularly with our Congress, when many feel that politics these days are quite polarized?
MARY WOOLLEY: They are polarized, but as I showed you in the names on the buildings at NIH, the history of support for medical and health research is bipartisan. We’ve got to do everything we can to keep it that way. We know, now let’s talk about younger generations here- we know that young, early career scientists are very, very, underscored, interested in getting involved in community engagement with talking to elected representatives.
We have a program called Micro Grants that provides small amounts of funding to help groups of postdocs, typically, do just that with their ideas. It’s kind of the RO1 model. You tell us what you think will work best and we’ll fund you and we’ll help you because we have expertise on our staff in lots of different areas of public engagement. This is a good program and there’s others kind of like that around the country, like ours.
With the systemic solution, I believe, is training people as part of their graduate education. This goes to Larry Tabak’s point, training people to be better communicators, to learn how to be effective in public engagement, to learn the public context, which includes a political context, always has, always will. A public context of the work of science. If people are more comfortable dealing with that, living within it, because what’s our choice? We’re a part of it. Of course, we’ve got to live in it. Becoming comfortable with it, learning how to talk about it, understanding that not everybody shares our views, and making it more of a routine aspect of being a scientist may help us encourage more young people today to want to become scientists.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: Mary, this next one might be fun for you, might be a challenge. I’ll let you answer it however you want. I think it’s an interesting question and it’s a short one, which is good because we only have a few minutes left. What research do you think has been most successful?
MARY WOOLLEY: Oh, boy, what research has been the most successful. In terms of lives saved, I don’t think there’s any question that it’s been research on how tobacco kills people has saved the most lives. It’s just a fact. It’s an interesting - I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me that question before, so I’d have to- I also don’t think that it’s fair to think about research being the most successful because it has the most papers or because there’s a Nobel Prize or all the rest. Lou Stokes, another person whose name is on a building at NIH, said, the public supports research, not for what it is, but for what it does. That might be an approximation of his quote, but the point is obvious. What’s it going to do for me, my family, my country, my world.
JOSHUA A. GORDON: That’s a great thought to close off of. I want to read directly one of the comments that was put in the Q&A because I think it’s also a really good thought to end with. Mary, thank you for your efforts and Research!America’s, in working to promote and educate members of Congress and the public on NIMH and NIH research through all the briefings, seminars, and resources that you do. Thank you for your tireless advocacy and thank you for coming to us today to talk to us about that, to inspire us, and to remind us how important our work is in this moment in time and for the past 75 years. Thanks so much, Mary. Really appreciate you.
Reminder to everyone that this is recorded. If you want to suggest to your friends or family or whomever, visit and would enjoy it, please check back on our website in a few weeks. I look forward to seeing you when the Director’s Innovation Speaker Series resumes next fall.