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Rallying for Medical Research with Jon Retzlaff

Published July 27, 2022

Show Notes

Each year, the Rally for Medical Research raises awareness of the urgent need for increased investment in the NIH to improve health, spur progress, inspire hope, and save lives. In collaboration with over 350 organizations, the Rally urges policymakers to make biomedical research a national priority. Now in its 10th year, we are proud to celebrate the critical advances made possible by the efforts of advocates nationwide.

Joining us today for the conversation is Jon Retzlaff, Chief Policy Officer and VP of Science Policy and Government Affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). Since launching the Rally in 2013, AACR has united thousands of Americans in one cause: the vital national importance of medical research.

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hi everyone. And welcome to This is Growing Old, the Podcast, all about the common human experience of aging. My name is Sue Peschin, and I serve as President and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. Each year, the Rally for Medical Research raises awareness about the urgent need for increased investment at the National Institutes of Health or National Institutes of Hope, as it’s also known as. The NIH is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, and it’s the largest biomedical research agency in the world. And in collaboration with more than a 350 organizations, the Rally for Medical Research urges policymakers to make biomedical research at the NIH, a national priority to improve health, spur progress, and offer hope.

Sue Peschin:

Now in its 10th year, we’re proud to celebrate the critical advances made possible by the efforts of advocates nationwide. Joining us today for the conversation is the leader behind this effort, Jon Retzlaff, he serves as Chief Policy Officer and Vice President of Science Policy and Government Affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research. Since launching the rally in 2013, AACR has United thousands of Americans in one cause, the vital national importance of medical research. Jon, thanks so much for joining us today to chat about the 10th Annual Rally for Medical Research.

Jon Retzlaff:

Thanks so much for really, Sue, for this opportunity today. It’s been very exciting and it’s hard to believe that we’re celebrating this our 10th year of this influential initiative on September 14th. Hopefully everybody remembers that, Wednesday, September 14th.

Sue Peschin:

Great. All right, well, let’s get started. Tell us more about AACR and why you all decided to start the Rally for Medical Research?

Jon Retzlaff:

Yeah. Well, AACR is a scientific society, 50,000 members from all over the world. Two thirds of our membership is in the United States. And the idea for the Rally for Medical Research really had its origins at the AACR annual meeting in Chicago. If you can believe this, in 2012, when our board of directors declared that its top priority was the crisis in cancer research funding at the time. More specifically at our annual meeting, our board declared that the advances in cancer research to improve patient outcomes were being jeopardized by declining budgets during the last decade of flat funding really at the National Institutes of Health. This flat funding from 2003 to 2012, really essentially resulted in a decrease of about 6 billion or nearly 20% of cuts during that period.

Sue Peschin:

Wow.

Jon Retzlaff:

And then in January 2013, many of you will remember that NIH ended up losing another 5% through the senseless across the board spending cut, known as sequestration. So at that point it became clear that the entire medical research advocacy community, not just the cancer community needed to join together, to talk to our nations policy makers about the importance of research and the need for them to commit, to providing robust annual funding increases for the NIH. As a result on April 8th, 2013, more than 10,000 people gathered on the Carnegie Library grounds in downtown D.C., where we shut down the streets of D.C. around the convention center. Millions more actually participated nationwide in this Rally for Medical Research. I think many have said that it’s accurate to say that never before have so many throughout the medical research community come together in such a public way to express this kind of support for NIH. And this unified call to action raised awareness about the critical need for sustained investments in NIH to do it.

Jon Retzlaff:

Sue had said earlier, “improve health, spur more progress, inspire more hope and save more lives.” It’s interesting because after the rally in April, the organizations had such a strong interest in maintaining the momentum from the rally that outside rally on the streets of D.C., that it was decided that we would follow up with a Rally for Medical Research Hill Day, later that fall, which took place in September in 2013. And then for the last coming up on 10 years now, we’ve been doing this every year where people are, of course, going to Capitol Hill to meet with their respective members of Congress.

Sue Peschin:

Right. And then you, and let’s just keep mentioning the dates so people can make sure that they write it in their calendars and that you guys do something the night before, too as well.

Jon Retzlaff:

That’s right. So Wednesday, September 14th is the actual Capitol Hill Day where people will be going to Capitol Hill to meet with the members of Congress. And the night before, Tuesday, September 13th, we have a reception really to celebrate the progress that we’ve seen over the years at NIH funding, where many speakers will be speaking, including Francis Collins. Who’ve been doing it for nine straight years. We’re hoping to get them for the 10th year here, coming up. But the morning, before we go to Capitol Hill in September 14th, they’ll be a breakfast program. Everyone will get their final marching orders, the paperwork that’s needed and everything in terms of the handouts that we provide to the congressional staff.

Sue Peschin:

Well, I know this is the 10th anniversary of the rally, as we’ve mentioned a couple of times. So what are some of the successes and your favorite moments from over the years?

Jon Retzlaff:

Yeah, I think in terms of the successes, I think it’s quite clear that the collective voices in the medical research community that have come together each year have made an enormous difference. If you look at just the past seven years in terms of overall funding, the House, Labor, HHS, Education, Appropriation Subcommittee Leaders, that would be Rosa DeLauro, Democrat from Connecticut and Tom Cole, who’s now the ranking member Republican from Oklahoma. But he served many times as the chair, as well as our Senate champions, that would include Chairwoman Patty Murray from Democrat, from Washington. And now the ranking member, Roy Blunt, from Republican, from Missouri. They have all listened intently to our advocates and with lots of enthusiasm. And as a result, they have secured annual funding increases for the NIH since FY 2016, totaling 15.4 billion, which translates to a 51% increase during that time.

Jon Retzlaff:

So, 10 years, maybe it took a couple years to kind of get traction. And over the past seven years, we’ve seen this 51% increase. So that’s, been wonderful. And some of my favorite memories really over the past nine plus years have been just seeing the interest and enthusiasm grow from even the countless members of Congress who are asking to speak to our rally participants at both the reception and the breakfast. And in addition, just the fact that Francis Collins has in his role as the NIH director. He participated for the first nine years of the rally. I think it’s just a testament to his support for this initiative.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah. I mean, I don’t think you can also underestimate the inspiration that it gives to folks who work at the NIH. And there’s thousands and thousands of people, both at the NIH main campus, and then throughout the country. Folks who get funding from NIH, it buoys everybody to see widespread support, just all over the country for this really important initiative and agency. And like you said, it cuts across party lines. You know, it’s not like a highly contentious issue. Everybody knows from experience that, you have things in your family and we wouldn’t be where we are today without the breakthroughs from the NIH. So it really is remarkable.

Jon Retzlaff:

It’s nice to have that kind of issue today, especially in the current environment we’re all facing, something that both sides can agree on the importance of medical research and bringing hope to patients who are suffering from hundreds of different diseases out there.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah. And I personally, I’ll share one of my favorite moments is just going to your lobby days and helping to organize a couple of the groups from a given state or area. And just going with the patients and hearing how much the research has helped them at a personal level and how passionate and important this is to them. Because in some of their cases, they wouldn’t be around, but for the breakthroughs at the NIH. So to go up to the hill to make it accessible, to make people realize like this is not rocket science, right. Hate to break it to you, what we do, but to be able to have that voice and use their experience to maybe help people moving forward, it helps them too.

Jon Retzlaff:

Yeah. I should add that one of the greatest memories has been the Alliance for Aging Research. I mean, in terms of that video that we showed at the breakfast with that inspiring song, and you having put that together over, I think a three month period where you had people talk about why research was so important that we played. And that was really just a wonderful moment. And the advocates, they went the hill after seeing that video of everyone from all different kinds of diseases. Talking about the importance of research with, I forget the individual who is singing. It’s a wonderful song. You probably would remember that.

Sue Peschin:

Oh, I think it’s the… Are you talking about the Fight song? Rachel Platten?

Jon Retzlaff:

Yes.

Sue Peschin:

Yes. Cool. Well, so what are the plans for the Big One-Oh?

Jon Retzlaff:

Well, I guess I should just start by saying that we’re just so happy to be holding this event in person. You know, after the past two years, we’ve had to do this virtually because of the COVID pandemic. At the same time, it’s been interesting because the past two years have been extremely successful. I mean, and we’ve been able to have advocates from all over the country, participate, who just can’t travel. It’s a costly thing to travel to D.C. and have a hotel room and all that kind of thing. So we were even trying to consider whether we could do both a virtual component as well as an in person. And I guess for this year just became so difficult to try to do both of those things.

Jon Retzlaff:

And who knows, maybe we’ll go back to the virtual component to bring in more people. I mean, we had 500 people participate last year because of that virtual component. And of course, we’re also looking forward to this year, being able to bring back this reception in person and have the advocates meet and discuss and hear directly from leading policy makers in Washington, D.C. So with the organizing breakfast in the morning, that is a great kickoff for them to then spend the day Wednesday morning, Wednesday, September 14th, on Capitol Hill.

Sue Peschin:

Well, that’s awesome. I’m just, I’m going to go off script for a second. Can you guys do like a Phone2action thing where people can just, at least message their members of Congress, even if they can’t set up virtual meetings with them?

Jon Retzlaff:

You know, that’s a great idea. And I think there’s no question we’re always, we want this always to be a nationwide effort. And that would always in the past involve sending emails, sending tweets on the day of the rally. So I think to some degree we will continue that, that which we always did. But I think because of people getting used to the virtual component over the past two years, I think we could raise that bar a little bit on the kinds of things we could do. And those ideas that you just suggested are wonderful. We do have different subcommittees for the rally that meet, and we have a communications and an outreach subcommittee, and maybe that’s the thing that I will reach out to those subcommittees to kind of charge them with that. Because it would be great if we can send out to all of our partners opportunities to involve their members all across the country to the point you just made.

Sue Peschin:

And we have Phone2action. So to the extent that it’s helpful, we’d be glad to help, say, to create a link or something. You guys create the messaging, it could be branded the way you wanted it to be. But anyway, so tell me a bit about some ways that folks can get involved in this year’s rally either in person in D.C. or what you might be working on virtually.

Jon Retzlaff:

Yeah. So there’s no question, go to the website, as you said, outside of this call, the rallyformedicalresearch.org and register if you’re able to come here in person. But for those many more who are not going to be able to be in person, we will get back to them with the ideas you just discussed and gave some wonderful ideas on. But other things that we’ve always done in the past is, we encourage people to send an email or call their respective member offices, tweet their member of Congress with a message and even post on their members’ Facebook page. So all the social media angles we want to cover. And then if they want to go more in depth, it’s everything from writing a letter, to the editor of their… Or place an op-ed in their local newspaper or national newspaper and that kind of thing, just the importance of medical research, or even do that kind of letter, send it to us. And we can help find ways to get that information to the policy makers on Capitol Hill.

Jon Retzlaff:

And then we’ve always encouraged, even though sometimes we don’t see members of Congress doing as many town halls that they’ve done in the past, but keep track of that kind of thing. Try to figure out where they can get their member of Congress and the local and meet with them in their district and states and everything. And that they could even organize a group of individuals to schedule a meeting with their members of Congress in his or her district office. I remember when we first were starting the rally, I actually went to a couple states and we did some district meetings. We had a partnership with the American Heart Association to do that, and that went very well. And sometimes, I mean, the members of Congress, they will hear about that, that a group of medical research advocates actually, went into their office and had a chat with their local staffer and everything.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah. And that could be a really good way to do it because then they know for sure you’re from their area, right. And it sort of localizes the whole thing, it makes it much more real. And also just to encourage folks who work in the academic setting, who may be recipients of NIH funding, it’s okay to advocate for that funding or doing it as a personal citizen, right. Somebody who is entitled to vote and entitled to have an opinion about NIH funding. And we have done a lot of education over the years to just let folks know who do receive funding from NIH, that they are oftentimes some of the best ambassadors to carry that message of the impact of the funding.

Jon Retzlaff:

Absolutely, Sue.

Jon Retzlaff:

Got to close the gap on a rally here.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah. So we’ve just, I know we’ve scratched the surface on a lot of great content and expertise. And the rally website is easy to remember. It’s rallyformedicalresearch, one word, rallyformedicalresearch.org. Now I’m going to turn to our closing questions, which we ask all of our guests. So first John, when you were a kid, what did you imagine growing old would be like?

Jon Retzlaff:

Hmm, well, I’ve got a 14 year old, but when I was a child who looked up to his parents and relatives, and I think our son does do that as well, we hope. I always, I guess, imagine that as I grew older, I just, I’d become much more knowledgeable about life and how things worked. And that, if I did that, as a result, it would help me get a good job and start a family and help my kids navigate both the opportunities and challenges that life presents.

Sue Peschin:

Right. Well, and so what do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Jon Retzlaff:

You know, I think just the feeling of being much more secure about knowing what it takes to succeed. I guess in terms of, in what I tried to instill in Evan, which is mostly hard work and you have to have luck along the way. But if you have hard work and you have a yearning to have a more complete understanding of how things work, I think that’s, what’s especially gratifying and satisfying about growing older.

Sue Peschin:

That’s awesome. Well, thank you for the work that you do at AACR and for leading the Rally for Medical Research. It was great to have you with us today.

Jon Retzlaff:

Great. Thanks so much, Sue. It was wonderful.

Sue Peschin:

Absolutely. And thanks to our audience for listening to This is Growing Old. If you’re enjoying this show, please subscribe wherever you get your podcast, have a fabulous day.