Making Your Voice Heard: Advocacy on Capitol Hill
Scientists have the opportunity to advocate for issues that are important to them by interacting directly with policymakers and their staff. Amrita Banerjee, Vice Chair of the Science Diplomacy Committee, shares her best practices for effective advocacy based on her own experience.
Effects of COVID-19 are being felt in every part of our society. However, despite the fear and uncertainty, there is light at the end of the tunnel with two vaccines against SARS-CoV2 currently on the market and others in the pipeline. Vaccine distribution within a year of discovery of the virus would have been unthinkable without the tireless efforts of talented scientists and researchers. The current state of the pandemic underscores the crucial nature of research funding, especially long-term investment prior to a crisis rather than solely in response to one. Scientists need to take a leading role in advocacy, but this can often be a daunting endeavor.
The good news is you do not have to be Dr. Fauci or Dr. Birx to make an impact. Traditionally, scientific societies and organizations host advocacy days that give scientists, particularly young trainees, the opportunity to talk to federal legislators about the importance of science-related policies, including research funding. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, advocacy days are shifting to a virtual setting, utilizing video meetings and phone calls, like the Rally for Medical Research. Virtual town halls also bridge the advocacy gap. These options may even enable broader participation, as no travel is required.
Participating in advocacy days through the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and Life Science Tennessee allowed me to meet with state and federal policymakers and a wide variety of advocates. Through these experiences, I’ve learned to discuss science with non-scientists and stress to legislators the importance of government’s top-down support of science and innovation.
Over the course of many such opportunities, I have absorbed several strategies that allow me to be more confident and assured in my advocacy, both virtual and in-person.
1. Understand the structure of a legislative meeting
First, most legislative meetings are held not with a member of Congress but with a staffer from their office. (In the current climate, however, legislators are taking more of an active role to directly engage with their constituents.) If you do meet with the staffer, do not fret because the staffer is usually your best bet to build a rapport with the office and get your message to the right people. Never discount the fact that the staffer has more access to the legislator than you do! Second, in any meeting, time is a critical factor - but especially in an online environment. Given the time constraint, be clear about your purpose and your message. Introductions should be brief so you can get to your point quickly. Third, know your audience. The legislator or staffer will be non-scientists, but they are incredibly adept at absorbing large quantities of information. Keep your message free of excessive jargon and convey your message in a clear and straightforward manner.
2. Have an Ask - and make it specific
Come with a clear and cogent “Ask” that can be conveyed in a few sentences. This could be anything from requesting that the legislator support a piece of legislation, sign an oversight letter, or perform some other action that your organization believes to be important. Make it clear why the Ask is important to the member’s constituents and what impact a positive result will have on their community. A clear Ask also gives the staffer a tangible task to look into or send up the chain of command.
3. Don’t pretend to be an expert
As a scientist, you do carry certain expertise, but no scientist is an expert in all topics. This does not need to be a barrier to being an effective advocate. Come bearing facts and figures but be willing to say “I am not sure about the answer to your question, but I will look into it and get back to you.” Have confidence in yourself and your message but be judicious in how you present your expertise.
4. Tell a story
Staffers are bombarded with all kinds of numbers each day and your message needs to go beyond statistics. For instance, when talking about NSF or NIH funding levels, link it to how this issue has personally impacted your training or the kind of work you have been able to accomplish. Tying it back to a personal experience gives the staffer a tangible impact of what is otherwise a faceless number.
5. Strength in numbers
If possible, gather a group of advocates to demonstrate that this issue is important and deserving of the office’s attention. Even with the current restrictions, this could be the perfect opportunity for your group to connect with legislative offices when, in other times, a trip to D.C. would not have been feasible. This could be a group that you recruit yourself or it could be a group that you join for an online meeting or virtual Hill Day organized by a partner society. By joining a pre-arranged event, you usually have the benefit of a training session that will provide additional tips and tricks, briefing materials to pass on to the staffer, and other helpful guidance. Check with your society to see if they have similar events and, if not, you could suggest organizing one yourself!
6. All politics are local
Constituent services make up a significant part of a legislative staffer’s duties, and legislative offices want to hear their constituent’s concerns. Therefore, if you are a scientist who wants to get a message to a decision-maker, start local. Reach out to your own district or state’s delegation first. There are certainly exceptions to this rule but by-and-large, you’ll be more effective when talking to lawmakers who you vote for.
7. Do not be afraid to follow up
In most interactions, a thank you email is always a good idea to acknowledge the staffer’s time and thank them for listening to your group’s pitch. Moreover, it is another opportunity to reiterate your Ask and address any questions or issues that were raised in the meeting.
8. Build relationships
One meeting will never solve all the world’s ills, or even get your Ask fulfilled, but it could be the beginning of a fruitful relationship. After a meeting, consider offering yourself or your group as a resource to the staffer if they ever have questions on a certain issue. Or, the next time the staffer or the member are in town, suggest they come visit your lab to see the results of their hard work. There are many ways to develop a relationship that benefits all parties.
Hopefully, some of these strategies will prove useful at your next advocacy meeting. As with all things, practice makes perfect. While the political process has its fair share of frustrations, continued engagement can be a force for good, particularly during these uniquely challenging times.
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To follow more of Amrita's advocacy efforts, find her on Twitter: @aban_91