From the careful planning of experiments to the more mundane mixing of coffee, milk, and sugar – or milk, then coffee, no sugar – science is part of our daily lives as graduate students. In contrast, science is far from the daily thoughts of the majority of American adults. Yet, all of us come across questions of scientific interest such as, “How to manage the opioid epidemic?” or “What are the available treatments for sickle cell?” Because the scientific method provides evidence to answer these questions, scientists must participate in the policy-making process by communicating with members of Congress. Engaging with politicians and policymakers can be intimidating if you do not know where to start. Below are four ways to start your path as an advocate for science:
- Request a meeting.
Meeting with legislators is the most effective way to advocate for science. If you are unaware of who represents you in D.C., search for your legislator on the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate websites using your zip code. Visit the legislator’s website to request a meeting using the contact form. Otherwise, write down the email, address, and phone number of local and D.C. offices. In your email, explicitly state the purpose of your meeting and the topic or issue you wish to discuss. If you are unsure how to format the letter, click here and here for sample letters.
After the meeting is scheduled, it is time to do your research! Determine if your legislator has appointments in committees relevant to your discussion. Identify the legislator’s position on the issue by browsing the legislator’s voting record on their website or by calling the office and asking a staff member. A useful resource is GovTrack.us where you can track what bill your legislator has sponsored and what legislation are currently under scrutiny. Gather relevant information you would like to add to your discussion including reports and figures.
Dress professionally for the meeting and arrive to the building 15 to 20 minutes before the scheduled time to avoid long lines at the entrance. Limit your conversation to one or two points as meetings last about 20-25 minutes. Remember to maintain a calm and conversational tone throughout. Most importantly, make the discussion personal by sharing your story on how the issue affects you and your district. Before leaving the office, thank the legislator or staff for their time and willingness to meet. After your visit, write a thank you email.
- Write to Congress.
After your visit, send a thank you email summarizing the topic discussed. Instead of writing a long email, attach a text document with a bullet list that includes your position on the topic and what you wish the legislator to do. Staff members will likely download, archive, and refer back to the bullet list when writing letters and reports for the legislator. In addition, attach supplementary information that strengthens your position on the topic such as reports and figures. Find a sample letter here. If you did not meet with a legislator, write a short email explaining your concern on a topic and how it affects you and your district. Provide possible solutions to the problem and do not be afraid to highlight what you wish the legislator to do. Remember to include your address, phone number, and email.
- Call, every day.
At the end of the day, staff members sort calls to local and D.C. offices by zip code and topic. The top three topics make it to a report that reaches senior staff and the legislator. Therefore, calling offices is an important and easy way to voice your position on current issues. Similar to a face-to-face meeting, limit your conversation to one or two points that you would like to make. Make the call personal by sharing specific examples of how the issue affects you and your district. Avoid ambiguity by clearly stating what you wish the legislator to do. Remember to call your district representative, two senators, and both local and D.C. offices for six calls total.
- Get involved.
Learn more about careers in science policy and how to engage effectively with congress by getting involved in the Science Policy Advocacy Group (SPAG) at UNC. SPAG is a student-led organization that enables students, postdocs, and faculty to learn about and advocate for science policy. Use your newly-minted skills at our yearly visits to Capitol Hill and state capitol to emphasize how investment in scientific research benefits North Carolina’s economy. In addition, we visit public schools in rural North Carolina to raise awareness about the federal agencies that support research.
As graduate students, we must engage in the policy-making process to cement partnerships between politicians and the scientific community, and to reinforce the connection between policy and scientific knowledge.
Peer Edited by Lindsay Walton
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