Mary Woolley is the President and CEO of Research!America, the nation’s largest not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance working to make research to improve health a higher national priority.
In her early career, Woolley served as San Francisco project director for the then largest-ever NIH-funded clinical trial, the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MRFIT). In 1981, she became administrator of the Medical Research Institute of San Francisco, and in 1986 was named the Institute’s executive director and CEO. Woolley has served as President and CEO of Research!America since 1990.
Under her leadership, Research!America has earned the attention and respect of elected and appointed officials, researchers in the public, private and academic sectors, media, and community leaders with its record of innovation in advocacy for research.
WashingtonExec recently spoke with Woolley about her prosperous tenure at Research!America, the current budget climate and its devastating effect to lifesaving research, and the current work that the organization is doing with the National Institute of Health and Food and Drug Administration among others.
WashingtonExec: Could you give us a little background on how became involved with Research!America and what brought you to the organization?
Mary Woolley: I began my career in the San Francisco Bay area and was involved in medical research for a couple of decades before I became interested in the challenge of making sure that our elected and appointed officials, as well as the broad American public, were at an understanding about medical research,realized what it could accomplish and what kind of stake we all have in it. Of course, all of us have our story. Mine was about people in my family, a couple of whom died prematurely because medical research just hadn’t accomplished all that it has today. In the late ‘80s, I was feeling that becoming an advocate for medical research was a career change that I was very interested in. It was about the same time that Research!America’s founders were beginning to talk about putting an organization together with the mission of medical research advocacy.
“The one difference today is that the economy is a lot worse, but the trajectory of science is more exciting. Unfortunately, we as a nation aren’t prioritizing research for health the way we used to.”
WashingtonExec: How has your work changed with the organization since taking your position back in 1989?
Mary Woolley: Many things have changed. Namely, the media and science itself. I would also say that the political sector has changed dramatically. Some things haven’t changed. When we went back and looked at the charter for Research!America in 1989, we saw the American economy wasn’t strong at the time, there was a recession going on and meanwhile science was booming. It was right at the dawn of the molecular biology age. This was way before the human genome and many other scientific feats that we take for granted today. Those factors of an economy in trouble and science moving very fast are as true today as they were in 1989. The one difference today is that the economy is a lot worse, but the trajectory of science is more exciting. Unfortunately, we as a nation aren’t prioritizing research for health the way we used to. Things are actually much tougher today than they were in 1989 for Research!America and for all of those who care about the future of their own health, the health of their family and of their nation.
“We are working with our 400 members from across the country to speak with one voice to end sequestration. We also have a social media campaign using the hashtag, ‘#curesnotcuts.’ “
WashingtonExec: How has the sequestration impacted the work that Research!America is doing and how are you planning to combat it?
Mary Woolley: The sequestration has really been a blow to the research, the full ecosystem as it is called in this country. That means that all of those who are conducting research, whether they are in the federal government agencies, academia, or independent/business research institutions are all struggling because, in addition to sequestration, there have been cuts to science funding over the last decade. The sequestration is just the icing on the cake. It has really discouraged a young generation of researchers and it has led to furloughs, lay-offs, salary cuts and all kinds of problems for those in the research community. We also shouldn’t forget that it exacts damage on the patient community; the people who were hoping to enroll in potentially lifesaving clinical trials. They may also be waiting for a new breakthrough medication in Alzheimer’s or diabetes or autism – that whole process has been severely slowed down not only because of sequestration but also because of the funding cuts over the last decade.
We are working with our 400 members from across the country to speak with one voice to end sequestration. We also have a social media campaign using the hashtag, “#curesnotcuts.” We also have a whole set of activities aimed at calling the attention of the Congress to the fact that there is severe damage being done, at least as severe as the damage to our whole defense commitment and the industry that supports it. We need to stop sequestration in its tracks in order to improve the health and well-being for people everywhere. It is really the federal support of research that provides the catalyst for private sector innovation, which in turn is the economic driver that seems so elusive to the nation right now.
“Sometimes it is hard for advocates to keep the faith and be relentless in delivering the message to the decision makers that we can do so much more, we can save so many more lives and we can save money in our healthcare system if we really do put research to work.”
WashingtonExec: Can you talk about some of the work that Research!America does with NSF, NIH, FDA, CDC, and other government agencies?
Mary Woolley: Going back to the very late 1990s and the beginning of this century we were instrumental in formulating and then driving the momentum toward doubling the budget of the NIH in particular. That did happen with bipartisan support over a five-year period. During that same period the budgets for the NSF, FDA, and CDC also went up significantly and that was not an accident – it was part of our overall campaign. A campaign, I might add, that was successful because we ensured that the broad ecosystem of the research community was fully engaged and that everyone was speaking with one voice. We also were instrumental during that two-year stimulus period following 2008 and at the very beginning of the first Obama Administration. We worked hard to make sure that funding for the NIH in particular was included and it did result in a $10 billion increase. There was also additional funding for the CDC and I do believe for the NSF as well.
WashingtonExec: What are you most proud of with your work at Research America?
Mary Woolley: I would say that there are two things.
The first is that over the course of time that I’ve been involved, which is almost 25 years now, there has definitely been an increase in public and decision-maker awareness of the value of medical and health research. One recognition of that is that the agencies that are responsible for conducting some of that research themselves and assuring that qualified institutions around the country are also conducting that research are better recognized by the public and decision makers than they were 25 years ago. From public opinion polls, we know that we commission on a regular basis and have done so almost from the very beginning of Research!America.
The second thing that I’m particularly proud of is that the community of stakeholders in research is much more likely these days to speak with one voice than they were when Research!America was first founded. In particular I’m talking about how the patient community of all of the different diseases and disabilities, who all have their own organizations, are much more likely to speak in tandem with each other and with academia, universities, academic medical centers and independent research institutions and with industry and the scientific societies. That’s something that needed doing and it feels good that it is happening more and more often. I think that the challenge remains that advocates must not take the status quo for granted, we can do better. We can conduct science at the level of opportunity that it now presents if we have enough resources and the right policy environment. That’s a terrific challenge right now. Sometimes it is hard for advocates to keep the faith and be relentless in delivering the message to the decision makers that we can do so much more, we can save so many more lives and we can save money in our healthcare system if we really do put research to work.