Student Meets Capitol Hill: A Case for Policy Training in Graduate Education

Thesis proposal? Check. A carefully crafted list of courses? Check. Peer-reviewed articles and conference attendance? Check, check. I had hit all of the important educational and professional benchmarks typically required in a science Ph.D. program. But what about a visit to my congressman’s office on Capitol Hill? Preparation of a “one-pager” and a clear list of my “asks”? This was some of the unique training I received when I recently took a trip to Washington D.C. with the Science Policy and Advocacy at Rutgers (SPAR) group.

 

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Aside from being a big fan of the HBO show ‘Veep’ and binge watching the political Sunday talk shows, I had no prior experience or education in policy or politics. Having few formal experiences in science policy is common to many science graduate students. As a blue water microbiologist, I had even fewer opportunities to engage directly with policy-makers during my Ph.D. student life than my peers working on coastal issues. However, the more I learned about the federal grant-writing process, taught introductory oceanography courses, mentored undergraduates, and collaborated with colleagues internationally (the “traditional” experiences of a graduate student) the more I realized the utility of understanding how science is used and regulated by the government. So I printed my business cards and set out to D.C. with fellow policy-curious students.

 

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   Three Rutgers oceanography Ph.D. students (Heidi Yeh, Austin Grubb, and myself) visit Capitol Hill to advocate for federal funding of basic science research.

 

The first day of our two-day trip was graciously hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and co-organized by the Rutgers Federal Relations Office. The day was a crash-course in the basics of science policy. We discussed different topics such as how to effectively communicate science to a legislator, how the federal budget is set, how House and Senate offices are staffed and organized, and the role of boundary organizations as an intermediary resource for scientists and lawmakers. We intensively prepared for our visit to Capitol Hill the next day. We wrote up our “one-pager” (which really should be called a half-pager, as I learned that most will only read the top half), did background research on the staffers and offices we were meeting with, refined our message, and agreed on our “asks” (for our Senators and Representatives to support increasing federal investment into basic research by 5% and to join the Congressional Research and Development Caucus). We practiced our introductions and pitches to each other, which worked out nicely since all the participants have vastly different science backgrounds (oceanography, chemistry, biomedical engineering, health policy, education, etc).

 

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   Graduate students get a crash-course on science communication strategies and how to have a successful hill visit at AAAS.

 

The next day, armed with our leave-behinds, maps of the House and Senate office buildings, and comfortable shoes, we put all of our training from the previous day into practice. We visited with the offices of various New Jersey and Pennsylvania House members and Senators, as well as the House Committee of Energy and Commerce to advocate for investment in research and, even more fundamentally, to put a face to the name of scientists. The hustle and bustle of the office buildings was exhilarating. While we visited our congressional offices, House members were (quite fittingly) in the middle of voting on HR9, a bill that would require the U.S. to uphold its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. Due to the current makeup of Congress, however, it has very little chance of passing the Senate and becoming law. These are the unfortunate realities within which scientists must operate.

 

This science policy “boot camp,” as I like to call it, was such an eye-opening experience. I learned useful strategies for communicating science to policy-makers that can also be easily applied to communicating to a lay audience in general. In many ways, communicating to non-scientific audiences is fundamentally different than how we are trained to communicate to other scientists. For example, as scientists we are hard-wired to lay out all relevant background information on a topic, then lead in to our particular research question and why it matters, and conclude with our findings (the typical flow of a research article or conference talk). However, when communicating to the public, especially to policy-makers with a very tight schedule and at the mercy of the 24-hour news cycle, it is best to flip this order: start with the bottom-line first and leave the supporting details to the end. Another critical piece of advice we received, which I will admit horrified me at first, was that it is sometimes O.K. to sacrifice some key details for the sake of the big-picture message. When it comes to engaging with less science-enthusiastic parties, we learned that by reframing our message in a way that connects to the specific interest and values of the stakeholders, we could more successfully find areas of shared common ground. These are just some of the tools at our disposal we can use to better reach the public and politicians.

 

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   Rutgers science graduate students meet with Benji Schwartz (right), legislative assistant for NJ-7 Rep. Tom Malinowski to discuss federal support of science.

 

More is being asked of scientists today than ever before. In addition to competing to secure dwindling resources for research, scientists have been thrust into the political spotlight and asked to engage with policy makers, the media, and the public and sometimes even defend their science. The importance of this engagement is perhaps best illustrated by a shocking statistic I recently heard - 81% of Americans cannot name a single living scientist. It is critical for today’s graduate students to receive training in science communication and policy in order to meet the increasing need of scientists to advocate for the importance of basic research and use of science in decision-making. Student-run science policy and advocacy groups like SPAR are popping up at graduate institutions across the country to meet these needs and scientific societies such as ASLO are providing all of its members at various career stages with tools to bring their science to policy discussions. Including experiences such as the one I had in D.C. into graduate training will be useful to ensure that today’s students are able to tackle the challenges they will face as leaders in their field.

 

For more information on how to engage in the policy process, check out these ASLO Policy Toolkits for the US, Canada and European Union: https://www.aslo.org/page/policy-toolkits

 

 

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