NIH-funded awards are subject to a prohibition on using federal funds for lobbying activities (the actual language can be viewed here and here). While these prohibitions have been in place for a long time, we are taking this opportunity to raise the visibility of the topic particularly since we had some changes last year and are often asked about what is and isn’t allowed under the prohibition. We have just posted a reminder in the NIH Guide, and a document on the NIH website providing additional guidance, including multiple examples of activities that can be done with federal funds and those that are restricted.
I encourage you to read the document, which differentiates the allowable and restricted activities for all types of grantees. I would like to highlight a few points.
The basis of the lobbying restriction is that no Federal funds can be used to influence members of the legislative or executive branch regarding either Federally- funded awards you may already have or regarding the introduction, enactment or modification of legislation at the local, state or Federal level. Federal funds can be used to generate research that is going to inform policy but your analysis, study, or research should contain a balanced, objective exposition of the facts to enable the public or an individual to form an independent opinion or conclusion. Materials must be posted or circulated widely to a diverse and numerous audience on a nonpartisan basis and must not contain an overt “call to action.”
For example, it would be allowable to use NIH appropriated funds to inform the public on potential policy solutions and their impact, such as balanced, objective materials designed to educate community groups or the public on the extent that healthy food choices and indoor air quality policies can lead to health improvements. As I said above, these communications should be designed to allow individuals and the public to form an independent conclusion.
It would also be allowable to broadly share balanced, objective information across large groups of interested parties (such as groups of other non-government organizations (NGOs) or state/local governments), for example, meeting with an association of state or local education agencies to highlight evidence-based policy approaches to improve healthy choices in school lunches. But, of course, this information may not make an explicit call that such policy approaches be adopted.
It would not, however, be allowable to use NIH appropriated funds to encourage the public or other entities to support or oppose specific action proposed or pending before the US Congress or specific legislation or executive action by a state or local government (also referred to as grassroots lobbying).
Remember there are reporting requirements that are placed on the grantee institutions so make sure this is a collaborative effort between supported scientists and their institutions.
I know this is a rather nuanced issue. Again, I encourage you to refer to the NIH website for more information and examples like those highlighted above. I hope this expanded guidance will be useful in answering any questions you may have on what you can and cannot do with NIH funds.