We live in politically charged times. As scientists, we are often affected by proposed federal policies, whether these impact the programs that fund our work, the people with whom we work, or our ability to effectively conduct our work. Here in the US, citizens can and should exercise their civic duties by voicing votes at the ballot box, or by directly contacting politicians about the issues that matter to them.
But what about engaging with decision-makers when your scientific findings could influence or inform current policies? Some scientists may want go beyond publishing their work in scientific journals and even beyond seeking media coverage. Some scientist may want to take that next leap, and engage more directly with the people who set policies that relate to their research. There are many ways scientists can do this, but one that can be particularly effective is direct engagement with your representatives in Congress.
Conventional wisdom has been that scientists should remain neutral, unbiased, and stay out of political debates so that they can preserve the perception of objectivity. However, the drumbeat is growing louder for scientists to buck that advice, and to become vocal. David Ropeik contrasted these views in a 2016 article for bigthink.com. He says it is important that scientists go beyond reporting findings by offering views on what should be done to address these findings; doing so “will allow scientists to fulfill the obligation to society that comes with their expertise and profession.”
A recent article in American Scientist by Asia Murphy takes this notion a step further. To increase trust among the public in science, she suggests that scientists must become not only political, but passionate; they must show that they are human.
That human connection, as it relates to building trust and rapport, are key aspects of engaging with decision-makers. It is particularly true when talking with members of Congress or their staffers. Creating an emotional or relatable association to the information you present can make all the difference, and creates an opportunity for a relationship. Sharing facts or figures can be impressive when done judiciously, but if you cannot tie it to something that impacts their lives, or those of their constituents, they are likely to forget you and the issues you have raised.
Meeting with elected representatives. The American Astronomical Society has a great page with steps for preparing for and scheduling these meetings and tips for making them effective. Below is an adaptation of these steps, with some examples from my experience.
Step 1. Find the right representatives. Congressional members will usually prioritize their own constituents, or issues that impact the areas they represent. You can determine your Congressional representatives here, based on zip code. You can also identify representatives outside of your district or state, or area where you did your work, based on their roles on relevant House and Senate Committees and associated Subcommittees. A history of caring about particular issue can also be important; this can be gleaned from media reports, from looking at members who participate in particular caucuses, or based on voting record. All representatives have offices in Washington, DC as well as in their local state.
Step 2. Know Before You Go. Before you request a meeting with any particular representative, look up their websites and check out recent press releases, or posts about issues on which they focus. Then, make connections to what they are interested in with respect to your work. For example, I had plans to meet with a conservative Republican representative from Kentucky regarding wildlife diseases. On his website, I saw that healthy forests and coal production were important issues for him and for his district; these were things I could reference in my request for a meeting. For greater impact, consider what is either in it for them, or at risk for them or their constituents.
Note: It may be rare that you get to meet with an actual Congressperson. However, their staffers are the ones ultimately addressing policy details. In fact, rapport with staffers can be even more important for future engagement opportunities.
Step 3. Request a Meeting. E-mailing or calling can be effective; start with e-mail and if you don’t receive a response within a few days, pick up the phone (both phone and e-mail will be listed on the representative’s website). Be sure that you clearly state that you are a constituent or that you have a particular interest in the person’s role in a caucus, or committee or subcommittee. Use what you learned in researching the person to support your reason to meet. In the e-mail requesting an appointment with the Kentucky representative, I stated that the reason I would like to meet was that there is an emerging salamander fungal disease that could impact his district, which was not only numerous in potentially-affected species, but an area where forest management and coal production (thereby jobs in either field) could be affected.
Step 4. Flesh out your message. When it comes to how you frame your messages in these meetings, the idea is to meet them where they are, and then start a dialogue that helps them see why your work is not only relevant to them, but important to improving policies. Do not expect them to find meaning just from hearing about your data or to be moved by your impassioned pleas for changes. They first need to understand the issue as well as the context of your work. It is also important for them to trust you. Influence in these realms is more about conversation and trust than coercion.
Step 5. Have the meeting. A few ideas to making your approach effective in the meeting:
- Be Positive. Everyone appreciates praise and it is also an effective ice-breaker. Based on what you can learn about the representative, start with a topic that reflects common ground. For example, perhaps the person has identified clean water as one of their interests. Connect this to your work, and thank them. “I would like to thank you (or if you are meeting with a staffer, say you want to thank the Congressperson) for your/their interest in clean water, which is something that is vital in the research I have been conducting. Health of the water and the land is key to maintaining healthy populations….”
In this same vein, keep your messages about the benefits that can occur when your concerns are addressed. Many advocacy groups tend toward fear tactics and though fear of loss is a powerful motivator when rallying the general public behind an issue, it may not be productive once you are face-to-face with a policymaker. Instead, frame the issue around what can be gained when your findings are applied and offer your assistance to help them modify existing or proposed policies.
- Bring visual aids and your best field stories. In my meeting with the Kentucky representative’s office, I brought a chart produced by a colleague with the number of salamander species by state, showing that KY had among the highest species diversity. I brought pictures of vibrant, smiling salamanders – excellent eye candy. I talked about the first time I saw an Eastern Newt (bright orange with red spots). With all of these visuals, I was eliciting emotional reactions from the staffers: “Wow, that’s how many species we have? Not individuals, but SPECIES? I had no idea!” Looking at the newt photo, “Oh cool, I remember seeing those in the woods behind our house when I was a kid.”
- Be concise. We’ve all heard about the “elevator speech” and it is true. After starting with something positive and connecting to their interests, tell them the conclusions or implications of your research first. If you have a particular “ask,” be sure to lead them toward it (e.g., do you want more funding for research or the opportunity to work with them to improve existing policies?). Start with the bottom line of your research, then why the findings are important, and finally the background and supporting data. Give specific examples regarding of how these findings can be applied in their region.
Watch for the eye glaze! Anyone who has been on the Hill knows what I mean; if you see them get that distant gaze or start looking at the clock, wrap it up and ask if they have questions. Or, change course and break out the visual aids. These appointments are rarely more than 15-30 minutes max, so use your time wisely.
If they are interested, they will ask you questions. You will see them start to connect the dots. If you are discussing a particular bill or existing law, be prepared with specific suggested modifications, but keep them in your back pocket until they ask. If they do ask, you can provide a red-lined copy of the bill or legal text, or suggest a follow-up meeting to provide and discuss these later.
- Make it personal. After you’ve offered ways for them to connect to the information you have presented, tell them how this affects you personally; share your own science or conservation ethic and how your work or findings, or the potential improvements to policies, move you. Ropeik provides some suggestions for “responsible advocacy” to help guide your messages. This is another great opportunity to share interesting or weird facts, or funny anecdotes, about the subject at hand.
Step 6. Follow up. Be sure to send a thank you message to the member or particular staffers. If appropriate, suggest a subsequent meeting, or suggest organizing a briefing on the topic you discussed. Another great way to follow up is to offer an opportunity to take Congress members into the field with you. Members return to their home states or districts several times throughout the year; being able to take them out to see your work first hand will most certainly create a connection… and of course, a great opportunity for media coverage! The August recess in both chambers is one of the longer breaks where members return to their home states, but occasionally, you can schedule such a visit other times of the year if their schedule allows it.
Too daunting? Seek others who can help!
If all of the above sounds intimidating, that is okay. Not all scientists excel at policy engagement or science communication in these situations. However, there may be partners at various organizations, especially non-governmental organizations, who are willing and able to assist. Look for organizations that engage in your areas of work, e.g., wildlife or land conservation organizations, scientific societies or advocacy groups, but consider their reputation and approach before deciding if they are a good fit.
Once you have had a few meetings under your belt, you will develop your own style and approach, and it all becomes easier. And once you establish these relationships, it is much easier to reach out for subsequent meetings. But never hesitate to ask for assistance, or seek to accompany more seasoned colleagues, when you first get started.
- If you want to meet to discuss a particular bill, there are several opportunities where you can be influential. This nice review of the legislative process via the American Psychological Association provides a good illustration of the stages between a bill being introduced in one chamber before being considered for a vote, including how bills are typically assigned to various committees and subcommittees (which may hold hearings to discuss the bill). Each of these stages provides opportunities to influence the bill occur as it proceeds through the system.
- Sometimes, a bill will not have momentum unless a companion bill is also introduced in the Senate. You can research bills on sites like Congress.gov or GovTrack.us where you can look for related bills; it may be most efficient to engage only after both chambers have a bill in progress, or when they are scheduling hearings to discuss them.
- For additional tips on messaging, meetings, or public engagement, check out these science communication tool-kits for advocacy or outreach, via the Engaging Scientists & Engineers in Policy (ESEP) Coalition. Very useful resources here for improving your approach, or even how to use social media to your benefit to connect with your target policymakers.
- If you are not pursuing a specific bill discussion, consider this article and study regarding “policy windows” that may increase the chances of your findings being considered in policy development.
- Finally, for tips on public engagement and communicating science in general, see Public Engagement: a practical guide, produced by the Sense about Science organization, an international charity whose aim is to address misrepresentation of science in public life.
Priya Nanjappa is a Program Manager at the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, based in Washington, DC (though she works remotely in the greater Denver area). While she is not the lead for government relations, she and other AFWA staff engage with Congressional offices to raise awareness or advocate for conservation needs on behalf of state fish and wildlife agencies. Priya’s focal topics include ensuring sustainable use of amphibians and reptiles, and addressing diseases in these and other nongame wildlife species, as well as tackling broad areas of invasive species management policy. She is also a national coordinator for Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC). Priya enjoys mentoring students and early career biologists looking to get into management and policy realms. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ThatPARCPriya.