By Sheeva Azma
Are you a person with scientific training, such as an undergraduate science major, a research assistant, a graduate student, or postdoc, interested in using science to shape policy?
If you want to make an impact with science policy, you’ll have to learn how to speak the same ‘language’ as Congress. The US Congress operates according to its own quirks and has its own ways of working. Sometimes, these ways of working can be in direct contrast with the scientific way of life.
For me, personally, one of my favorite modes of communication is LOLcats. The early 2000s was LOLcats’ heyday. Back then, I was a college student at MIT, and perusing the photos of the cute cats superimposed with funny captions made my life.
So, in this blog post, allow me to try to explain the science-policy divide using LOLcats.
The first thing you should know to be successful in science policy is that scientists and lawmakers live in two entirely different worlds.
Think of a scientist’s day-to-day life: the day of an undergrad researcher, research assistant, grad student, or postdoc, who is tasked with doing the lion’s share of the science research. They might wear jeans to lab, spend days working by themselves at the computer or with highly technical equipment. Scientists are skilled in the scientific method and hypothesis testing. An entire day might be spent running an experiment in solitude or poring over previous literature. Scientific conferences are casual and focused on science and scientific rigor. Lab meetings are low-key (for the most part). They might focus on sharing data; helping one’s colleagues learn a new method they can apply in their work; or sometimes even commiserating about the challenges scientists face.
Now consider the day-to-day life of a Congressional staffer. In Congress, staffers are the behind-the-scenes of the legislative body (kind of like research assistants, grad students, and postdocs are for science). They wear a suit to work and are trained in professional modes of impactful communication. Their office spends a lot of time on making sure they are presenting the best face to the world, because they know that perceptions matter. They are skilled in the intricacies of law and Congressional procedures. They spend time communicating to people in high-stakes conversations with constituents, colleagues, members of Congress, powerful lobbyists, and more.
The lab and Congress could not be more different. I know this because when I made the transition from working in science labs for over a decade to working on Congress, I experienced culture shock. The only thing the two places had in common was that I worked long hours for relatively little pay in a building where I spent most of my time. Oh, and in both places, I was working on extremely cool and interesting work, and doing so highly independently. In both science and policy, it’s not uncommon to work on a problem that nobody has solved before, for whatever reason.
Moving to the policy world from a career in science? Get ready for culture shock.Tweet
Nerding out over scientific data and papers, complaining about failed experiments, sending fellow research staff LOLcats to pass the time before the next participant arrives for an MRI scan? Out.
Wearing a suit, running around to different briefings, getting things done super fast, being writing and editing tons of different documents to be read by all kinds of people, explaining how the Congressional printer works to new interns, and learning the intricacies of a political system that I did not know was so complicated? My new normal.
Science and policy are so, so different. What’s more, there are no natural paths from one to the other. If you ask me, that makes science policy a huge challenge.
Working in both spheres, I have learned there are steps scientists can take to speak the same language as policymakers. Here they are:
Learn about how Congress works
Hopefully, as a scientist, you know that the Congress is made up of two bodies: the House and the Senate. Each person has two senators representing their state, and a varying number of representatives in the House based on their state’s population. If you live in DC, you have no senators and one representative who can give speeches but can’t vote.
Take the time to look up your members of Congress, both in the House and Senate. Subscribe to their mailing lists so you can get a feel for their policy priorities: what they care most about. You should do this even if your lawmakers have completely different political viewpoints than you. Many issues solved with science policy have bipartisan support, and it’s important to have everyone on board, regardless of political affiliation.
Stay in touch with your Members of Congress
If you are affiliated with a college or university, find out if they have a Washington, DC office or a legislative advocacy group. Many alumni associations have a dedicated legislative advocacy interest group that stays up-to-date on bills affecting the institution. You can sign up to get emails from them on subjects of interest to your alma mater. For example, I’m part of the MIT Legislative Advocacy Network which regularly sends out updates on science and technology bills being considered in Congress.
You can also reach out to lawmakers yourself, if you have an opinion on a piece of legislation.
Remember, Congress serves you, not the other way around. They’re happy to represent your interests, so long as you can communicate them effectively and professionally. Congress loves scientists: they value expertise and have a forward-thinking mindset when it comes to innovation and research and development (R&D). Plus, most people working in Congress are not scientists, so you can offer to be a resource for them on issues in your area of expertise.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to your Members of Congress any time you have something to add to the public policy conversation. Just remember to keep it friendly, professional, and to the point. Check out our tips for reaching out to your Members of Congress here.
Check out the Congressional Research Service
If you’re wondering what information Congress uses to make decisions, check out the Congressional Research Service or CRS. The CRS writes in-depth reports on issues facing Congress. Congress considers CRS reports to be a gold standard in obtaining information, alongside reports from industry and experts.
I did a quick search at the CRS for “biomedical research” and came up with a backgrounder on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its history. The CRS reports are meant to inform policymakers, who are not experts in these topics, and to get up to speed quickly. They are primarily short overviews/explainers, though, and you may have something to say that adds to the discussion.
Work on your message
Once you have something to say to Congress, you have to figure out the best way to communicate it. Lead with your policy ‘ask’ and why it’s important: for scientists, for the US in general, for research.
If you’re meeting with lawmakers in person, it’s a good idea to have a one-pager document that you can leave with them. When I went to Congress to advocate for biomedical research funding, I took a one-page document explaining the policy ask, what it meant for research, and so on. Fancy Comma, LLC can help you with the messaging aspect.
If your policy issue is very nuanced and complex, you may consider sharing a longer, more in-depth document, such as a white paper, with them. We can help you with white paper writing, too. Remember to keep your overall message as brief as possible. Policymakers and their staffers are super busy and anything you can do to make their work easier goes a long way!
Think bipartisanly. Focus on shared values. What do you have in common with the other side that you can start off with as common ground?
Here’s an example to illustrate this idea. In late July 2022, the House and Senate passed a bipartisan innovation act, called the CHIPS & Science act, to boost domestic US semiconductor production and establish, for the first time, advanced semiconductor manufacturing on US soil. How did the policymakers do it? They focused on their shared goals and values to strengthen US R&D, boost US economic competitiveness, and retain the US’s position as a major player and leader in the high-tech world. Republicans and Democrats agreed on the importance of maintaining the US’s technological supremacy through policy to incentivize US-based chip production. I watched some of the House debate of the chips bills on CSPAN. What did the Democrats and Republicans have in common in their speeches? The recognition that, without a chips bill, US technology manufacturing would fall behind that of other countries.
The Bottom Line
Science policy, like science, is a conversation. It’s a conversation between constituents and the people who serve them in Congress.
I like to think of science as a conversation between scientists and society. Science policy is a conversation between scientists, lawmakers, and other key stakeholders. If we want to have effective, science-informed policies in the US, it’s important that scientists play a role in the discussion.
While science and policy are two different worlds, scientists can learn the skills needed to inhabit both. I’ve worked at the forefront of science policy since 2011, as a Society for Neuroscience Early Career Policy Fellow, visiting lawmakers on Capitol Hill to explain the benefits of federal biomedical science funding. Since then, I’ve worked at a DC area science and technology think tank, interned in Congress, and examined US-China trade policy for a DC-based firm.
My science and tech communications company, Fancy Comma, LLC, has helped Congress make progress on some of the most important, complex issues of the day. Our work has helped bridge partisan divides and help bills such as the CHIPS and Science Act become law. Read about our services, including political communications services and white paper writing, here.