By Sheeva Azma
As science communicators, our day-to-day work involves making science more accessible. Sometimes we do this to help people develop a love for and understanding of science, but sometimes science is just one small part of a larger puzzle.
Working in Congress remains an unusual career choice for Master’s- and PhD-level scientists. However, politics can be improved immensely by scientists’ participation. If you’re interested in learning more about our political communications services as a boutique marketing and strategic communications firm serving science, technology, health, business, and finance, click here. Otherwise, keep reading to learn more about five notable times politicians excelled at science communication.
When I interned in the US Congress, I applied my science expertise to help Members of Congress make better decisions. As a scientist and science writer, I could interpret and summarize complicated science issues quickly to keep the Congressional staffers informed and thereby improve decision-making on tough issues involving science, health, and technology. I often attended briefings on complex science and technology issues and summarized science-heavy issue topics for Congressional staffers.
I learned from my experience on Capitol Hill that science and technology expertise can be another tool in politicians’ toolkits to help their constituents live better lives through science- and technology-informed policy.
Take the CHIPS and Science Act, for example, which was signed into law on August 9, 2022. This bill funds manufacturing of new sites in the US to create a domestic chip supply which includes advanced chips that have never been made in the US before.
Science has impacts far beyond strictly ‘scientific’ issues such as high-tech manufacturing. As a science communicator, we often work on explaining topics that have a huge social impact beyond just the science facts themselves: things like explaining the role of the environment in sustainable agriculture, discussing health care reform in terms of ways to keep people healthy, and so on. So what’s the best way to discuss these topics?
Think about it: Can you win hearts and minds on science and technology policy related issues without understanding the science? Do constituents trust policymakers who cannot fully understand and unpack the issues?
If you ask me, the answer is no. Getting science communication right as part of a policymaker’s overall communications strategy is important: both to break down the issues for their constituents and to help get elected (or re-elected).
While we live in a time where anti-science sentiment is often embraced by politicians (sadly, I have seen this on both sides of the aisle), I’ve been heartened by the successful science communication I’ve been seeing by Republicans and Democrats alike here in the US. Keep reading for several examples of times that politicians got science communication right in their political communications, whether in tweets, speechwriting, or elsewhere.
As I mentioned, the CHIPS Act, passed in August 2022, laid the groundwork for a US-based advanced semiconductor infrastructure. President Biden signed the CHIPS Act in a Rose Garden event in which he made a speech. I tuned in, expecting the speech to be entirely intellectual – he’d definitely talk about the benefits of advanced chips, I predicted, and would explain why we need them to be made in the US, as mandated in the bill. To my surprise, he did – but he didn’t immediately take the intellectual route.
Here’s what he said:
“In America, everything is possible. We believe every and anything is possible. It’s part of the soul of this country. I mean, it really is.
We can channel all our resources. Most of all, we can channel the full talents of all our people into a greater measure of hope and opportunity for our nation and for the world — to create good jobs, empower workers, grow the economy, not just for the wealthy but grow it for everyone; to change the course of human health and disease; to tackle climate crisis with innovation and jobs; to lead the world — not — this is not hyperbole — lead the world in future industries and protect our national security.”
Instead of starting off with a boring recap of what advanced chips are and what they do, he indirectly mentioned the impacts of the bill: creating new high-tech jobs, supporting the economy, and lowering costs of high-tech products to make them accessible to everyone…and so on.
Biden went on to talk about creating possibility and opportunity and establishing a more diverse workforce (check out this statement from Dr. Alondra Nelson, Acting Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, for more about that). His speech was as much about society and possibility as it was about chips.
Science communication can often seem boring and dry when we forget to tie it back to what really matters – the people who are your audience. Biden knew his audience and wasn’t afraid to take an unconventional route to discuss the impacts of technology policy in the CHIPS Act.
2. President Trump Tackling Vaccine Hesitancy
Tackling vaccine hesitancy – the tendency for people to be wary of the new (at the time) COVID vaccines – was a huge challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the vaccines became available in late 2020, people remained skeptical. This was in part due to a lack of information about the vaccines, and also in part due to misinformation. The US government bankrolled a huge initiative, called “Operation Warp Speed,” to develop COVID-19 vaccines quickly and safely. This initiative brought together doctors, scientists, biotech executives and others to help develop a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year.
Whether you like him or not, President Trump was arguably one of the biggest proponents of the COVID-19 vaccines; just read his Rose Garden comments on Operation Warp Speed here. Sadly, he would go on to get booed by his own supporters due to his love of COVID vaccination.
A huge challenge in communicating the safety of vaccines would end up becoming the quickness by which they were developed. Mind you, this rapid pace was only possible due to over three decades’ worth of research, but this turned out to be a difficult message to convey. Yet Trump did not shy away from this message: here’s what he said at the Operation Warp Speed Summit on December 8, 2020, just three days before the first COVID vaccine became available to US adults:
“From the instant the coronavirus invaded our shores, we raced into action to develop a safe and effective vaccine at breakneck speed. It would normally take five years, six years, seven years, or even more. In order to achieve this goal, we harnessed the full power of government, the genius of American scientists, and the might of American industry to save millions and millions of lives all over the world. We’re just days away from authorization from the FDA, and we’re pushing them hard, at which point we will immediately begin mass distribution.”
In politics, it’s easy to discount your challengers or people who don’t think like you. It’s much more productive, and also much more difficult, to work across the aisle and look for shared values. Presidents Trump and Biden, despite their many differences, shared a love of science and COVID-19 vaccines. Maybe that’s what helped us vaccinate so many people here in the US in an effort to transition to an endemic phase of COVID-19. Bipartisanship literally saves lives.
While many red states were COVID-19 ‘hot spots,’ Republican leaders worked to combat vaccine hesitancy. Arkansas, a so-called ‘red state’ located in the US south, experienced a huge surge of COVID cases. As a result, Arkansas’ governor, Asa Hutchinson, frequently communicated regarding the benefits of vaccines as different variants burned through Arkansas. He toured Arkansas promoting vaccinations, answering questions from Arkansans and dispelling misinformation. He also tweeted about getting vaccinated frequently on his official Twitter account. He wrote: “Over 87% of COVID hospitalizations are unvaccinated, which shows the effectiveness of the vaccine at preventing serious illness. Get your vaccine this week as cases and hospitalizations continue to increase.”
By the way, Republicans and Democrats both had the same message here, which definitely helped the bill become law. Check out Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s interview on CNN in which she discusses the benefits of the CHIPS Act.
Bipartisanship gets things done in Congress, and key to working across the aisle is recognizing shared values. Rep. Michael McCaul is a conservative Texas Congressman who co-sponsored the House version of the CHIPS Act with Rep. Doris Matsui, a Democratic Congresswoman from California. After its passage, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle chimed in on Twitter with all of its benefits.
The CHIPS Act garnered Republican votes and support because it sought to establish the US’s chip infrastructure and accelerate chip production in the face of threats to US research and development from China. On both sides of the aisle, Members of Congress recognized the threat that was posed by having to buy all of our chips from China. A natural disaster or political event could shutter the entire US chip supply, making it difficult for chips to be found for anything from smartphones to fighter jets.
The Senate version of the CHIPS Act, the CHIPS for America Act, was sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, who had a similar message. So did a number of other members of Congress, including Senator Todd Young of Indiana, as well as Secretary of State at the time, Mike Pompeo.
5. Grassroots COVID-19 #SciComm by Rep. Miller-Meeks (IA-1)
As the saying goes, “all politics is local.” A hyperlocal ground game is unbeatable in politics: remember Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential run, in which he “spent months visiting all 99 counties in Iowa,” and in doing so defeated his opponents in the Republican primary?
A missed opportunity in the pandemic, if you ask me, was to create a science communications “ground game.” Maybe it’s because most scientists aren’t also in policy like me? One politician that nailed it was Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a nurse representing Iowans in the US House of Representatives.
Miller-Meeks not only released a statement entitled “Miller-Meeks Encourages Vaccines;” she also went on a vaccine tour of her district, literally vaccinating her constituents. She also vaccinated the head of the Iowa GOP, and her own husband, as you can see here in her tweet:
Rep. Miller-Meeks did not shy away from debunking vaccine misinformation on her official Twitter and talking about the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine. We could have used more politicians like Rep. Miller-Meeks reaching out to constituents, and engaging with them to dispel vaccine myths. One way to tackle science challenges is to hire people with a science background to help communicate these facts, whether for a biotech company or for Congress. (Politicos, if you’re reading this, we’d love to help – get in touch!)
Science touches everything around us, and remains at the core of many of the challenges we face today, whether COVID-19, climate resilience, health, national security, or tackling the current economic challenges we face as a world. Without people able to explain the relevant aspects of science and technology to everyday people, there is a missed opportunity to make the world better through science and technology.
Science is a rare thing that unites members of Congress. Rep. Bruce Westerman of deeply Republican Arkansas is a forestry professional and has worked on saving Sequoias and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat, represents Silicon Valley so he’s an ardent supporter of US science and technology. Rep. Thomas Massie, an MIT grad like me, is known for his right-wing views. As a champion of renewable energy, however, Rep. Massie also describes himself as “the greenest member of Congress.” Rep. Massie’s house in Kentucky is built entirely off the electric grid. These Congressional representatives could not have more different political views, but they all agree that tackling scientific challenges is key to our shared future.
Bipartisanship on science and technology issues is easy when we focus on our shared values. The question is: can we get there, or will we continue talking past each other and politicizing and stalling issues that require action?
About Sheeva Azma
Science communicator and political comms strategist Sheeva Azma has been called a “science policy veteran.” Sheeva’s worked on political campaigns since high school. In the 2022 midterms, she phone banked in both Spanish and English and also came up with messaging and social media content for two winning US Senate toss-up races. In addition to her political canvassing and digital media experience, Sheeva has also worked at Washington, DC think tanks and in the US Congress. She earned her BS in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from MIT and her MS in Neuroscience from Georgetown University. In 2020, Sheeva founded her own science, health, technology, policy, business, and finance communications company, Fancy Comma, LLC. As a science communicator working in policy, she’s written white papers for Congress, developed science-backed talking points for politicians, and more. Follow Sheeva on Twitter @SheevaAzma.