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2021 Advocacy Awards

2021 Advocacy Awards Inspires Audiences and Honors Leaders

“Americans are seeing what matters,” said President Joe Biden at the opening of the Research!America 2021 Advocacy Awards. “It matters that we lead with science and invest in research,” he added, saying, “we have a chance to alleviate so much pain and bring hope to so many people; to put an end to cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and so many other diseases.” The virtual awards event took place Thursday, May 13 via an online broadcast. Watch the full program.

“What did we learn from the rapid spread of this pandemic that will better equip us for the future?” asked Oprah Winfrey as she sat down for a virtual conversation with Dr. Tony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Dr. Fauci was the recipient of the Outstanding Achievement in Public Health Award.

“We have lived through history, you and I,” Dr. Fauci responded, “and what we’re learning is you’ve got to be prepared, really serious preparation at the global health level and at the scientific level.” 

The unforgettable conversation between two of America’s most trusted communicators was an exciting conclusion to an event that, in the words of Research!America President and CEO Mary Woolley, recognized “researchers and advocates whose contributions to medical, public health, and scientific progress, have conveyed profoundly significant societal benefits.”

Lester Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News” and “Dateline NBC” kicked off the event, expressing his gratitude for “for those among us who acted with speed, with resolve, and with courage against a societal threat, unlike any in living memory. They didn’t bow to fear or setbacks or controversy or pressure. They woke up every morning and fought.” 


Corporate Sponsor Johnson & Johnson’s Dr. Bill Hait also welcomed the attendees, saying “This rare moment in history provides an opportunity not to be missed, to speak loudly and clearly about the importance of science and how the investment in science builds the foundation for better health.”

Held virtually for the first time, the 2021 Advocacy Awards set out to celebrate the 2020 honorees the organization was unable to salute in March 2020 due to restrictions caused by COVID-19, to honor key congressional champions for medical and public health research, and to recognize individuals and organizations front and center in the fight against COVID-19. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced the recipient of the Paul G. Rogers Distinguished Organization Advocacy Award, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In a video featuring MS researchers and patients, the message was clear: research is the engine that drives progress for patients.

Wayne State University president M. Roy Wilson, MD introduced the next segment, which featured the three recipients of the 2020 Geoffrey Beene Foundation Builders of Science Award: Myron M. Levine, MD, DTPH, Associate Dean for Global Health, Vaccinology & Infectious Diseases, Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Gary J. Nabel, MD, PhD, President and CEO, ModeX Therapeutics, and Paul A. Offit, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Ross Levine, MD, led the three in a discussion that gave each researcher an opportunity to reflect on advice they’d received and thoughts for the next generation of leaders. Dr. Nabel explained that for him, the best piece of advice to follow comes from Theodore Roosevelt, “Keep your eye on the stars and your feet on the ground.”

“Those are our stars,” he said, “that’s our opportunity to impact a broad universe of people in ways that we might not have imagined.”

The next segment featured several other 2020 honorees getting to ask each other questions, providing a unique opportunity for discussion. Mary Fogarty McAndrew, Chair of the John E. Fogarty Foundation for Persons with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and recipient of the Gordon and Llura Gund Leadership Award, asked UC San Francisco’s Bruce Alberts (recipient of the John Edward Porter Legacy Award) about next steps for creating a more rational, scientifically-based society. “First,” he replied, “it means that scientists have to pay a lot more attention to education, science education.” He added, “We should stress learning objectives that are getting every student to understand the nature of science and how it works and how we reach conclusions.”


NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins introduced the 2021 awards section of the program, speaking about all the honorees and their contributions to science and public health. “We have the confidence to call upon science to save the single patient with the rarest of diseases,” he said, “as well as to combat threats that pose a risk to every person on the planet.”

Following an introduction from Pfizer’s Dr. Mikael Dolsten, Dr. Victor Dzau, President of the National Academy of Medicine, led a great discussion with the two collaborators whose work led to the use of messenger RNA, or mRNA, in the development of key COVID-19 vaccines. Drs. Katalin Karikó of BioNTech and Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania were the recipients of the Building the Foundation Award.  As they discussed the challenges and ups and downs of the basic research that eventually led to breakthroughs that allowed mRNA to be used for vaccine development, Dr. Weissman reflected, “I never tell my grad students to spend 20 years working on something that isn’t working. But we knew that this was important. We knew it had enormous potential. So we kept it up.”

Communication throughout the pandemic has been critical and Clear Voice Award co-recipients Dr. Anne Schuchat & Dr. Michelle Williams have been at the forefront. They were joined by Seema Kumar for a conversation about science communication in a public health crisis. “I don’t see myself as a powerful communicator,” said Dr. Williams. “But I felt that I had to rise to this occasion, because this pandemic challenged us in so many ways.”

Dr. Schuchat agreed, adding, “I took away from this past year how important it is to listen, to understand the concerns people have.” And even more importantly, she said, “to listen with humility.”


As part of the presentation of the Rapid Translation Award, Dr. Barney Graham of NIAID and Dr. Stephen Hoge of Moderna had a conversation with Susan Dentzer about the importance of public-private partnerships and investment in accelerating medical progress. The key to the incredibly speedy development of the earliest COVID-19 vaccines, Dr. Hoge said, was “Investments in basic science and basic technology development.” To ensure our nation will have the capacity to respond in the future will require further preparation and investment in basic research.

Two short vignettes of interviews with representatives of the Meeting the Moment for Public Health Award honorees, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities followed. These vignettes provided the audience with an inside look at what the crucial elements contributed to their success. On the lasting impacts of COVID-19, Dr. Lainie Rutkow of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center  shared that the pandemic “fundamentally changed the public’s appetite for data; we suddenly find ourselves in a moment where we have this shared lexicon of phrases like average daily new cases or mortality rate or herd immunity.”

The Michigan Task Force was created in response to the way that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color in Michigan. The Honorable Garlin Gilchrist II, Lieutenant Governor of Michigan, explained that the state “decided that the experience of communities of color was critical to the success of our state during this pandemic and that we needed to put attention and resources on addressing that problem.”


The Honorable Shelley Moore Capito, U.S. Senator (R-WV), and the Honorable Eddie Bernice Johnson, U.S. Representative (D-TX-30), joined Research!America to accept the Edwin C. Whitehead Award for Medical Research Advocacy and recognize the importance of research funding. Senator Capito explained that she has seen firsthand the destruction that these diseases can create and added “bottom line, research saves lives.”

Rep. Johnson described her work on the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology and expressed her hope for the future. “We have an opportunity to look beyond the politics of today to develop the best policies for tomorrow,” she stated. 

An unforgettable conversation between two of America’s most trusted communicators was an exciting conclusion to the event. Oprah Winfrey sat down for a virtual conversation with Dr. Tony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the two had a wide-ranging discussion that touched on racial disparities in health, how to prepare for the next pandemic, and much more. Dr. Fauci pointed out that “all of a sudden, we have lived through history, we’ve lived through history because 100 years from now people are going to be writing about the pandemic of 2020-2021” and called for a decades-long commitment to erasing the “racism that puts brown and black people in a position where they’re so vulnerable to a thing like an outbreak.”

The program closed with a heartfelt duet of “Hallelujah” from Isadore Rosenfeld Award for Impact on Public Opinion honoree, Renée Fleming and Dr. Francis Collins. Raising their voices in song, gathered in praise of research and medical progress, they show how science has the ability to empower the world.

Filmed prior to social distancing guidelines.







These are the 2020 honorees that we recognized at the 2021 awards as we were unable to honor them in 2020 due to the limitations caused by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.










  • AcademyHealth
  • AdvaMed
  • Alzheimer’s Association
  • American Cancer Society
  • American Heart Association
  • American Public Health Association
  • Johns Hopkins University and Medicine
  • Mary J.C. Hendrix and Charles E. Craft
  • Mass General Brigham
  • University of California, San Francisco
  • Vertex
  • Mary Woolley

Updated as of April 23, 2021