August 2, 2017

District Days Series: Lab Coats and Lobbyists – Your Role in Advancing Science

Posted by cbunge

This Bridge post is a part of AGU’s District Days Series. Throughout August, Members of Congress will be back in their home states and districts meeting with constituents. As a part of August recess, The Bridge will highlight voices of AGU members that have been engaged with their legislators both in DC and back at home. Check back with us next Wednesday to hear more stories of AGU members standing up for science! For more information on how to schedule your meeting with your legislator, check out AGU’s District Days website. 

If you’re anything like me, then at some point in your career, whether you’re a first year graduate student or a tenured professor, you have likely complained that Congress underfunds scientific research, and/or has no understanding of basic scientific concepts. The good news is that you don’t need to quit the lab or the field to bring your expertise and knowledge to the Capitol. You just need to talk to your representatives. That may sound daunting, but it really is very easy, and besides, it is literally their job to talk with and listen to you.

Patrick Drupp, a current AGU Congressional Science Fellow, on top of the Capitol dome in Washington, D.C.

All day, every day, Representatives, Senators, and their staffs meet with constituents, stakeholders, lobbyists, and experts to discuss a myriad of topics. Staff cover a broad range of issues and rely on outside expertise to help them make informed decisions and recommendations. When it comes to issues that rely on sound science or scientific funding, YOU are the experts. There is no one better to represent science than the scientists themselves.

Every year, Congress must decide how to spend over a trillion dollars on thousands of programs. Each program has its supporters, as well as its share of detractors, and someone must make the case as to why it deserves funding. Offices take requests from their constituents and decide which programs they are going to make their own priority. Expert input is also critical when drafting new legislation or deciding to support a bill. Staff are spread thin, and the information needed to make these decisions comes directly from our constituents who have explained why their program or policy is critical.

Your job is simple. Set up meetings with your Representatives and make the case for your priorities. If you aren’t sure what to say, talk to your University’s government affairs staff, or contact AGU and other scientific societies that have a presence in Washington.

Because this is uncharted territory for most people, here are 5 tips to make the most of your meetings.

1. Have an “ask.” Know why you are there and what you want to get out of the meeting. Don’t plan to go into the meeting to just “advocate for science” in general. If you have a program that you think should be funded or input about a piece of legislation, then that is your ask. The last thing you want is for staff to walk out of the meeting wondering why you were there. On that note…

2. The first thing you should do after introducing yourself is state your ask. If you want funding for a program, start the conversation with “I’m here today to talk to you about concerns I have with the funding for _____.” It may seem awkward or rude to start a conversation this way, but staff expect it, and it’s why you’re there. We need to know right from the beginning what you want so that we can get the information we need during the conversation. Meetings can be short and sometimes end abruptly so don’t wait!

3. Do your homework! It’s helpful if you know a little about the history of your request. Was this legislation introduced in a previous Congress? What were the funding levels of the program the past few years? Be prepared to explain how this helps their state or district. What are the potential benefits? That’s not always easy to answer, but if you can, it will go a long way. Be creative in how you think about this. For example, if you’re advocating for funds to build a research facility, remind them that this will create construction jobs in their district. ALL members respond to job creation, and they’re much more likely to be supportive if you can show that your program or policy will help the local economy or directly benefit their constituents.

4. Form a relationship. Be sure to leave a business card (they’re currency in Congressional offices), send a follow-up email, and make yourself available for future discussions. One of the best outcomes of a meeting is that you show you become the go-to contact for staff on an issue

5. Finally, be passionate. You are science’s best spokespeople. You understand these issues and can make the case better than anyone.

No industry or business would let Congress make policy and spend billions of dollars without advocating for themselves. Science is no different. So, meet with your legislators, spread your knowledge and enthusiasm, and make your voice heard. It is your responsibility as a scientist and a citizen.