A Scientist’s Roadmap to Capitol Hill

Follow the money that drives science research in the United States, and more often than not you’ll end up in Washington, D.C. The dollars don’t reach labs on their own, though: Institutions, interest groups, and individuals help legislators decide what to fund — and science competes with every other federal program for resources.

This year scientific research is one of the few areas slated to gain ground in the proposed federal budget, but that budget is not law yet. “If people want to see the research and development funding increase they’re going to need to get up there and say, ‘Look we feel that we need those increases, they’re vital for the future, they’re vital for job creation [and] our future economic competitiveness,'” said Bob Simon, staff director of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, at a session of the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, on Saturday in San Diego, California.

Along with Tobin Smith, associate vice-president for federal relations of the Association of American Universities, Simon laid out a map of the roads through which scientists can offer their insight to their elected officials in Congress. Smith, who described his job, with his tongue in his cheek, as “cross-cultural communications,” said that for scientists to help policymakers they need to make the effort: “You’re scientists, you don’t have time…but you can learn to navigate it just as if you were going to a foreign country.”

Simon explained that most legislators leave the nitty gritty of science policymaking to legislative assistants, who are based in D.C. offices. Scientists can start by reaching out to “Constituent Services Representatives” — a senator or representative’s ears to the ground in their home district or state offices. These people can help a scientist reach the right legislative assistant in D.C. Legislative assistants act as gatekeepers for the committees they serve, helping decide who can testify before a committee, for instance. Home offices, university lobbyists, and professional-society lobbyists often organize springtime group visits called “fly-ins,” where constituent groups can meet with committee staff in D.C., Simon said.

Knowing who to speak with and when are important: No legislative aide wants to hear advice on a vote the week after it takes place, Smith noted, but the way scientists communicate with legislative aides is also critical. “Build a relationship,” he advised, instead of just barging in with a data set and an opinion. He cited the example of one university that organized science-outreach days on campus on behalf of their representative, who was then able to take credit for promoting science. He also advised catching legislators at their home offices, where they often feel more comfortable and have less hectic schedules than in the capital.

Legislative Committees Scientists Should Know

House of Representatives: Science and Technology, Energy & Commerce, Natural Resources, Homeland Security, Appropriations, Ways & Means

Senate: Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Environment and Public Works, Energy and Natural Resources, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Appropriations, Finance

Both speakers stressed the importance of putting science in context in clear, simple language for government decision-makers, very few of whom have a science background. “Science is only one piece of the policy-making puzzle,” Smith said.  Legislators think on electoral timeframes and must weigh economic and security issues, and public opinion, whereas scientists usually think more about a decision’s long-term impact. Yet the public still has great respect for scientists, and when they — scientists — speak in a unified, clear voice, the public and their leaders take notice. It may not be easy to bridge the language barrier, Smith said, but if they take the time to cultivate a better understanding of how to reach legislators and their staff, scientists have the potential to make a big impact.


First published by Science Careers: [html]