July 12, 2017

Reflections on a Society Doorknock: Engaging Policy Makers

Posted by agilliam

Editors Note: This blog post was cross-posted from Wiley’s Discover the Future of Research blog.

By Lexi Shultz, Vice President of Public Affairs, American Geophysical Union

Thanks to the terrific staff at Wiley, I recently had the opportunity to join other leaders from scientific societies for a day on Capitol Hill – or, as Wiley calls it, a “Doorknock.”  During this event, representatives from half a dozen or so science societies met with two Senate offices and four House of Representative offices (two of which included the member of Congress himself).

As the Vice President of Public Affairs for the American Geophysical Union, I do science policy for a living. That means I have participated in many, many congressional meetings over the years.
Even so, the “Doorknock” was both an interesting and valuable experience for me. For one thing, the congressional staff and Representatives we met seemed pleased that the science societies were making engagement with “the Hill” a priority.  Given that I often hear congressional staff say that scientists just don’t communicate enough to policymakers, that’s not too surprising.  One staffer I know has told me that his office makes a note of each issue raised by constituents in calls and emails, but science is brought up so seldomly that it doesn’t warrant its own category.  I was also pleased to get to know science society professionals I hadn’t met before.  The discussions we had could lead to future collaborations – including an effort to engage more scientists in the policy process!
One of the most interesting parts of the day for me was hearing the differing views of the congressional offices – all Democrats –  on bipartisanship, or the lack thereof.  Some offices expressed confidence that the parties would work together to ensure strong funding for science and oppose the drastic cuts proposed by the White House for the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.  Take Congressman Serrano (D-NY), for example.  As the lead Democrat on the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee – which decides how to fund NOAA, NASA and NSF, among other agencies – he works closely with the Subcommittee’s Chairman, John Culberson (R-TX).  Both men have made robust cases for the value and importance of basic research and space exploration, and they have a congenial relationship.  This positivity was reflected by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)’s staff as well – the Senator sits on the Senate Commerce, Science, Transportation Committee, where he has maintained good working ties with a Republican Colleague -Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO).  (Maybe it’s from sharing a first name!)
Other offices were not so sanguine.  Both Rep. Katherine Clark’s (D-MA) staff and Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL) himself decried the fact that at least some federal agencies have been directed not to respond to requests for information from congressional Democrats.  Congressman Foster – currently the only PhD scientist in Congress – noted that he has taken to releasing his letters to the Administration and the press at the same time, so that reporters can ask the relevant questions of agency officials.
What lesson to draw from all of this? To me, what it says is that there are still policy makers who are actively looking to get things done – and those are the people that understand that they must work across “the aisle.”  So, If you are hoping to influence science policy – or educate policymakers about science – go ahead and contact your policy maker regardless of his/her party.  You never know when you might encounter a decision maker who wants to get things done.