Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! No—it's … abiomedical research Super PAC!
With researchers at pharmaceutical companies, biotechnologyfirms and academic institutions in this known galaxy scrambling for whatremains of government funding following the devastating effects of thesequester, an independent expenditure-only political actioncommittee—colloquially known as a "Super PAC"—is preparing to race to therescue.
Able to leap across the Congressional aisle in a singlebound, raise money for research-friendly political candidates faster than aspeeding bullet and become a champion of the grant-seeking oppressed, First inScience is coming to an industry conference near you to inform you of itscause.
That's what Jim Lantry, First in Science's founder and a35-year veteran of government and political campaigns, was doing when I caughtup with him this month as I worked on our ongoing coverage of the impact thesequester 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 becameaware of Lantry's efforts earlier this year when I wrote our first story aboutthe sequester, "2013: 'A bad year to have a good idea,'" and I researchedwhether any Congressional officials had publicly addressed the $1.6 billionloss the NIH is bracing to accommodate. But the few officials I have been ableto locate and contact in the months since have very little to say about theNIH's cuts, specifically, and in some cases, their staffs weren't even aware oftheir position on the issue.
This sounds like a job for First in Science, a new Super PACthat aims to increase research opportunity by organizing campaigns in supportof candidates seeking political office who pledge to support government fundingfor biomedical research.
Giving me a ring from the recent Federation of ClinicalImmunology Societies (FOCIS) conference in Boston, Lantry explains how he cameto found First in Science. Working in both the private and public sectors as alobbyist and political consultant for a wide range of industries, Lantry'sformer client list boasts the likes of General Electric, Home Depot,Exxon-Mobil, Dow Chemical, BP, Macy's, UPS and Safeway Stores. But it wasn'tuntil 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 thepolitical needs of the embattled biomedical research industry came to hisattention.
"I've watched my wife try to write grants as her researchbudget has gone down," Lantry says. "A lot of her colleagues are going toSingapore, China, Korea, Australia and Europe. This was before the sequestereven happened. When we got married last August, my social circle changed, andI'd meet people at functions who would always come up to me and want to discussthe need for federal research funding. Inevitably, when someone finds out whatI do for a living, they point their finger at you and say, 'this is a problemwith our government; you're a lobbyist, you should do something.'"
Lantry is of course aware of some of the controversysurrounding Super PACs and doesn't shy away from it. On his way back home to LaJolla, he jokes, "Super PACs are inherently different from political actioncommittees—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 orhow much he could accept," he says. "A candidate could only take $5,000 from anindividual. Obviously, if you are running a campaign today, $5000 doesn't domuch. The average cost of a freshman campaign is $1.7 million."
With campaign finance laws becoming the Kryptonite of thePAC process, a recent Supreme Court decision—Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—held that "money isfree speech, and corporations are people," says Lantry, "and that decisionopened the door for Super PACs."
The way Super PACs, including First in Science, work is thata Super PAC can raise "an unlimited amount of money to support a candidate'scampaign, as long as you do not coordinate with the campaign itself," Lantrysays. "So essentially, you campaign side-by-side with the candidate, but youdon't coordinate any messages with the candidate."
First in Science's goal is to raise $100 million to supportcandidates seeking office in 50 different Congressional races who are eitherpro-research or running against "people who are either neutral on science, oranti-science," says Lantry.
"We will ask these candidates to sign a pledge to supportbasic research funding and to bring that issue to the floor of Congress," hesays. "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. Thereare two things politicians want: money and votes. They want money so they can getvotes, 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 acorner, but the people who voted for them who support investment in researchwill expect them to maintain that commitment."
Although First in Science's focus is on strengtheningfunding opportunities for biomedical research, "what we're really talking abouthere 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 away to balance the budget if we don't invest in things that give us thepotential for economic return."
And with so much hanging on that balance, it will beinteresting to watch First in Science in action. So forget about that newSuperman reboot, "Man of Steel," which is in theaters this summer, but my comicbook-geek friends tell me isn't any good anyway. And pass the popcorn. Up, upand away with you, Mr. Lantry.