How to Promote Science on Capitol Hill

By Sheeva Azma

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

Wondering how to engage lawmakers on the issues when it comes to science? Read on to learn my best advice derived from working on Capitol Hill.

This post was inspired by a series of Tweets I wrote for @IAmSciComm. Check out my original tweet thread below! Or keep reading for a quick guide to how to do effective science policy work on Capitol Hill.

First of all — remember Schoolhouse Rock? This song is my jam!  

The good news about science advocacy is that it’s pretty easy to engage your local Members of Congress on the important issues — it’s their job to listen! Science funding, especially biomedical science, enjoys bipartisan support in Congress. The difficult part is knowing how to do science policy effectively.

The good news about science advocacy is that it’s pretty easy to engage your local Members of Congress on the important issues — it’s their job to listen! #SciPol #SciComm

There are several ways to engage with policymakers. You can call or email your Member of Congress.  You can also arrange to visit their Congressional office (either the local district office or the DC office).  You can also work in Congress yourself.

The Most Effective Ways to Contact Members of Congress

Contacting your Members of Congress on an issue is pretty common in general. It’s their job to listen to your concerns, and it helps them come up with the most effective policies that serve you and your local community. You can call or email or arrange for an office visit.

Emailing Members of Congress

Let’s talk about emailing your Member(s) of Congress first, since that’s the easiest. You can use Google to find their contact information, but here’s a tip: most Members have the following format to their websites:

[name].[house or senate].gov

For example, the website for Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA14) is speier.house.gov. The website URL for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is warren.senate.gov.

Your representatives’ contact information can be found on their websites. There are also a variety of apps and websites you can use that will automatically send emails to your Member of Congress, but I recommend calling your representative directly. Let’s talk about the best way to call your Members of Congress next.

Calling Members of Congress

Here are five easy steps to effectively call your Member of Congress:

1. Find their contact info on their website.

I recommend calling your Congressperson’s Washington, DC office.

2. Be polite (even if your political views differ from theirs).

Keep in mind that the person answering the phone is a lowly, unpaid intern who is yelled at by constituents all day. Don’t be rude to them, even if you’re a liberal Democrat calling a super-Republican Tea Party office. They’re there to listen to you and help.

3. Be direct.

Prepare a short elevator pitch on your topic and why it matters — to you, to other constituents, and to the United States and world. Don’t ramble for 30 minutes about how science funding is being ripped away from the United States. This is not an effective strategy.

4. Be succinct.

Come up with a short — 30 seconds or less — pitch for the Congressperson’s office. This will take some effort, but it is the most effective strategy. When you take the time to come up with a short pitch, you are doing the work of explaining why your topic is important — rather than asking your Members of Congress to figure it out (which they don’t have time to do).

5. Call your actual representatives, not just random Members of Congress.

Finally, remember to only call offices of Members of Congress where you live. Many offices only formally log the calls, emails, and mail they get from their actual constituents. In other words, it’s a waste of time to call every Congressperson. Keep your efforts more targeted.

Finally, a note on how constituent calls are handled in Congress. When you call your Member of Congress’s office, the lowly intern you talk to will take down your name and contact info. Your info is input into software that is used to keep track of what issues are most important to constituents to inform policy. So, remember to give them your contact info.  This information is also used to send you a reply letter via snail mail or e-mail regarding your comment.

Visiting Capitol Hill: How to Talk to Lawmakers about Science

Many professional organizations, such as the Society for Neuroscience, regularly offer opportunities to connect with policymakers via Capitol Hill Day events in which scientists visit Capitol Hill to discuss the importance of science research. If you are part of a Capitol Hill Day in which you visit Congress to engage lawmakers on the issues, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

Keep It Simple

Firstly, keep things simple, yet impactful. Most lawmakers are not scientists, so don’t explain things in excruciating detail. It helps if you can speak from your own experience as a constituent of the Member of Congress. Come up with a series of talking points which introduce the issue, and discuss its importance.

Use Talking Points

Talking points can help you refine your message to lawmakers. For example, let’s say you are visiting Capitol Hill to discuss the importance of federal funding for biomedical science research with your Members of Congress.

Talking points can help you make your case to lawmakers, whether you’re on a Capitol Hill visit or calling your Member of Congress’s office. #SciPol #SciComm

Some talking points might be:

  • NIH funding is a good investment, because every dollar invested in NIH funding nets much more than a dollar in return. See this NIH fact sheet for more information.
  • Funding science is good for the economy — it creates jobs and leads to cures for diseases that affect everyday Americans.
  • Biomedical science funding helps the U.S. compete globally to remain a world leader in biomedical research.

You’ll likely want to come up with more detailed talking points related to your personal experience as a scientist, but these three should give you a good start.

Consider coming up with a 30-second elevator pitch regarding yourself which you can use on the phone or on a Capitol Hill visit. This elevator pitch should include who you are, what you do, and why you are calling or visiting Capitol Hill.

Another way to affect science policy is by actually working in Congress! Let’s talk about that next.

How to Work in Congress

An obvious way to enact policy change on Capitol Hill is to work in Congress yourself. This one is much more difficult to do than calling your lawmakers or participating in a Capitol Hill Day, but if you’re a policy wonk like me, it can be an incredible experience.

Here are three ways you can work on Capitol Hill:

1. Engage in advocacy with a group related to your field.

The first way to work on Capitol Hill is by visiting Congressional offices is as part of an established legislative advocacy program. Your scientific subfield (for me, it was the Society for Neuroscience) likely has a professional organization that has a Washington, DC office dedicated to Capitol Hill advocacy. Institutions of higher education often have a legislative advocacy office in DC, so you may also want to check with your university or college’s career or alumni office.

2. Intern in Congress

I have previously blogged about how to get an internship on Capitol Hill. The process is simple, and can be done entirely remotely, but does require a lot of diligence and research. Being a Congressional intern is a fast-paced, rewarding experience.

Interns are at the bottom of the food chain in Capitol Hill, but that doesn’t mean you won’t gain valuable experience — and be able to contribute your scientific skills and experience to boot. As a legislative intern, I attended briefings on science and health issues, and summarized them for a Member of Congress.

Working one’s way up the ranks is the most common way to get a job in Congress. Without internship experience, it’s very difficult to get a job on Capitol Hill, unless you are selected for a prestigious Congressional fellowship — which we’ll talk about next.

3. Apply for Congressional fellowships — but be aware that they are highly competitive.

The most impactful way to affect political change as a scientist is to become a science legislative assistant in a program like the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. Getting a fellowship requires a Ph.D. or other advanced degree and the selection process for these programs is very competitive. Legislative fellows are typically placed in a Member of Congress or Committee office and serve as the Member or Committee’s science advisor.

It Helps to Stay Attuned to the Issues 

To be most effective, your advocacy and other legislative work should be informed by what’s happening in Congress & how the place works.  So, be a policy unicorn! Watch C-SPAN and figure out how to track bills on congress.gov. Sign up for your Members of Congress’ newsletters and call them often on the issues.

To be most effective, your advocacy and other legislative work should be informed by what’s happening in Congress & how the place works. #SciPol #SciComm

The more you know about how Capitol Hill works, the better your efforts will go. Good luck!

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