American Society For Nutrition

Interview with Dr. Susan Hutson, PPC Chair

Interview with Dr. Susan Hutson, PPC Chair

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
A Conversation with ASN's Public Policy Committee (PPC) Chair Susan Hutson, PhD, and Director of Government Relations, Sarah Ohlhorst, MS, RD

As home to renowned nutrition researchers across the globe, ASN is dedicated to enhancing scientific knowledge in nutrition and health. The combined expertise of our members is critical for the Society's advocacy efforts.  These efforts have become even more important in the current political and economic climate, and the PPC works to ensure that our members' essential research priorities are communicated. PPC Chair Susan Hutson and ASN Director of Government Relations Sarah Ohlhorst recently sat down to discuss the PPC's goals for the next year, and to offer advice for members who are interested in becoming more involved in nutrition advocacy.

Interviewer: Dr. Hutson, what is your role as chair of ASN's Public Policy Committee?

Dr. Hutson: My role is to handle the research side. While Sarah interfaces directly with Capitol Hill and brings current issues to the committee, I provide leadership to the committee itself.  Sarah and I also work together to ensure that any concerns our members have are brought before the committee.  It really is a partnership.

Interviewer: What are the Public Policy Committee's priorities?

Dr. Hutson: One of ASN's primary goals is to advocate for funding for nutrition research. With the current economic situation, money for research will be tight or highly competitive.  For that reason, we decided that the PPC needed to focus our efforts. So the committee polled 75 top thought leaders in the field and asked them for their top research priorities in nutrition. We have collated that information, and ASN has convened a working group to further analyze and prioritize those responses to focus on several key areas. The findings will then be presented to the membership at ASN's Scientific Sessions & Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology (EB) April 21-25, 2012 at a workshop called “The Future of Nutrition Research,” allowing us to get more member feedback.  This process will ultimately result in a list of nutrition research priorities that Sarah can use in her advocacy work.

Ms. Ohlhorst: In addition to nutrition research, the PPC also works to advocate for funding to support nutrition monitoring. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the “What We Eat in America” portion conducted through the USDA's Agricultural Research Service are invaluable to ASN, because they help build a base for the research that ASN members conduct.  

Interviewer: As you point out, funding cuts provide a major obstacle for nutrition research. What other challenges do you foresee in the coming year?

Ms. Ohlhorst: I expect 2012 may be difficult from an advocacy perspective because it is an election year, which can make it hard to keep the focus on our issues. Funding may also become an even more prominent concern following the Congressional Super Committee's failure to come up with a plan to reduce the federal deficit.  That means grant funding that many of our members receive is likely to be subject to the 9% across-the-board cuts in 2013.  

Dr. Hutson: Another ongoing challenge unique to nutrition advocacy is that it is a component of many different diseases. This is an obstacle especially when working with the National Institutes of Health, because nutrition research is spread across so many different institutes. This means that we need to communicate with a much wider network of people, which can make it more difficult to advocate than if you're focused on a specific disease.

Interviewer: What solutions does ASN see to some of these challenges?

Ms. Ohlhorst: In some ways, ASN is a solution in and of itself, particularly in reference to Susan's point about nutrition being spread over so many disciplines.  ASN brings together nutrition researchers, regardless of the agency that funds their work.  It allows them to collaborate on projects that benefit all of us.  That is another thing that developing organization-wide research priorities will achieve, because we are bringing members from so many different disciplines into the process.

Interviewer: How can members get more involved in advocating for ASN's priorities?

Dr. Hutson: One great thing, certainly, would be to attend the Future of Nutrition Research workshop on April 24, 2012, 10:30 am-12:30 pm in San Diego to provide input on nutrition research priorities. The PPC has held advocacy training for interested members and plans to do this more in the future. The training would help these members learn how to effectively convey their priorities in a short amount of time.  

Ms. Ohlhorst: In addition, we send a public policy-focused newsletter to members twice a month.  I encourage members to read that newsletter to stay informed about what ASN is doing from an advocacy perspective and to participate in calls for action.

Interviewer: The reauthorization of the Farm Bill is fast approaching. What potential issues does ASN hope to see the 2012 bill address, and what obstacles do you foresee to ensuring those issues are properly addressed?

Ms. Ohlhorst: The PPC organized a working group on the Farm Bill to help identify the priorities that ASN would like to see included during reauthorization, including funding for nutrition research and appropriations for nutrition monitoring.  The last Farm Bill included language from ASN about nutrition monitoring. We would like to see similar language included in this bill as well as language emphasizing the importance of nutrition research.  

I think it may be a bit of a challenge to make sure that our voice is heard, because it is such a complex bill with so many different components.  Nutrition research and monitoring are a very small portion of the bill, so it is important that we work to make sure that our priorities are noticed.  The working group did discuss many other issues that are in the Farm Bill, such as nutrition education and the supplemental nutrition assistance program, but we felt that in the current climate, we really had to focus our priorities more narrowly.  If the Farm Bill gets the attention it deserves, and if it is discussed adequately on the Hill, we could see some major changes.

Interviewer: What do you find most rewarding about nutrition advocacy?

Ms. Ohlhorst: It is so rewarding when legislators or agencies reach out to ASN as the go-to organization to discuss their nutrition concerns. It is also just a gratifying time to be in the nutrition profession and to be involved with an organization like ASN, because of the growing national focus on nutrition.

Dr. Hutson: Advocacy is wonderful because it gives us the opportunity to see our research have a broader impact. It's also amazing just to have the chance to contribute to the nutrition community as a whole. We get to see the big picture, talk to members from across the board, make connections, find new ways to look at nutrition, and identify  some of the needs and gaps.

Editor's Note:  Dr. Hutson and Ms. Ohlhorst also encourage members with interest or questions about ASN's advocacy program to contact them. Email Dr. Hutson at susanh5@vt.edu and Ms. Ohlhorst at sohlhorst@nutrition.org.

December 2011