Society Spotlight: The Genetics Society of America

By | October 23, 2014

By Joseph Carey

Society Spotlight: The Genetics Society of America

The Genetics Society of America (GSA) in recent months has enhanced its activities to represent the collective interests of its members, offering comments and input to Congress and federal agencies that stand up for foundational research and the most efficient and effective mechanisms for supporting science.

Founded in 1931, GSA is the professional membership organization for scientific researchers and educators in the field of genetics. Its more than 5,000 members from all 50 states and nearly 50 countries work to advance knowledge in the basic mechanisms of inheritance, from the molecular to the population level. Twenty of its members have received the Nobel Prize.

The Society is dedicated to promoting research in genetics and facilitating communication among geneticists worldwide, including through its two peer-edited scholarly journals, GENETICS and G3: Genes|Genomes|Genetics. Its professional conferences focus on the genetics of many of the leading model organisms, including C. elegans, Drosophila, fungi, mice, yeast, and zebrafish.

GSA is committed to fostering the next generation of geneticists. More than half of the membership is comprised of postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates. It has added trainee representatives to its board and committees. The Society is a strong supporter of education and outreach, helping to explain the basic tenets and value of genetics to K-12 and undergraduate students and the general public.

Below are summaries of recent letters and policy statements written on behalf of the Society.

21st Century Cures Initiative

In May, GSA provided input to the U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce on its 21st Century Cures Initiative, which is described as a “comprehensive look at what steps we can take to accelerate the pace of cures in America.” GSA focused on the importance of discovery, saying that “translational research simply cannot occur without a base of new knowledge and understanding of underlying biological mechanisms to translate.” The Society expressed concern that declining investments in foundational research today will lead to a dry development and delivery pipeline in the future.

NSF Postdoctoral Eligibility

In April, GSA asked the National Science Foundation (NSF) to broaden the eligibility for postdoctoral research fellowships in biology. NSF has required applicants to change institutions from their PhD university, which GSA believes to be too restrictive. The letter to NSF agreed with the need to ensure that trainees gain broad perspectives and experiences, but pointed out that many institutions offer the opportunity for continuing study in different departments, colleges, or professional schools. GSA asked NSF to consider allowing individuals to remain at the same institution as long as the postdoctoral setting would provide the desired breadth of training. NSF responded in June, indicating that they “intend to remedy this requirement while still encouraging applicants to seek a postdoctoral experience at another institution whenever possible.”

NIGMS Strategic Plan

In March, GSA provided input to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) on its strategic planning process, though a White Paper focusing on the agency’s two core missions—research and training.

The White Paper suggested increasing the percentage of the NIGMS budget committed to research project grants like R01s and putting a sunset clause on non-investigator-based initiatives. GSA asked NIGMS to provide bridge funding for highly meritorious investigators to minimize damage to research teams caused by a funding gaps, prioritize funding of early stage investigators, and fund community resource centers such as stock centers and model organism databases.

GSA recommended that NIGMS evaluate its training programs to ensure they are meeting desired goals efficiently and establish postdoctoral fellowship support to underrepresented minority scientists. The Society asked NIGMS to extend the eligibility clock for K99/R00 awards for those adding children to their families or dealing with other family medical issues. It also asked the agency to avoid penalizing graduate programs if students receive extra training that promotes their career development.

The Society further encouraged NIGMS to focus on enhancing peer review in comments submitted in September.

Federal travel regulations

In January, GSA submitted testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, expressing concern about the negative impact of restrictions on federal employee travel and conference sponsorship. These measures were imposed in the wake of allegations of extravagant meetings organized by government agencies. GSA highlighted the value of scientific conferences, including their essential role in promoting sharing, getting feedback on ongoing research, and keeping up with the latest scientific developments. Conferences also catalyze new connections and collaborations and provide a venue to learn about new disciplines or further one’s career. GSA expressed concern that the restrictions “are preventing government scientists from being full and active participants in the scientific community” and “are leading to a reduction in efficiency and a reduced return on the nation’s investment in research.”

GSA joined FASEB in 2010 and is represented on the FASEB Board by GSA’s 2015 President, Jasper Rine, PhD. The current GSA President is Vicki Chandler, PhD, Chief Program Officer for Science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

To learn more about GSA and its upcoming events, visit the GSA Web site.

Dr. Vicki Chandler (GSA President), participating in  last year's Capitol Hill Day along with Dr. Hudson Freeze (FASEB Vice President of Science Policy) and Dr. Thomas Baldwin (FASEB Vice President-Elect for Science Policy)

GSA President Dr. Vicki Chandler (center) participates in last year’s Capitol Hill Day along with FASEB Vice President of Science Policy Dr. Hudson Freeze (left) and FASEB Vice President-Elect for Science Policy Dr. Thomas Baldwin (right). Photo courtesy of GSA.