How can scientists engage with policy makers? (Updated!)

Last week, I visited Washington DC for training as part of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement. I spent the week with the other 14 incoming Leshner Leadership Fellows, learning about writing and pitching opinion pieces, storytelling, evaluating outreach, and much more. But perhaps the thing that was the most eye-opening for me was our trip to Capitol Hill, where we met with two staffers from the House Energy & Commerce Committee as well as several staffers from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP). Prior to going, we got a tutorial from some AAAS folks on policy engagement fundamentals. In this post, I’ll go over the policy engagement fundamentals that I learned at AAAS, supplementing with things I learned in this free online course related to public engagement, which included several expert opinions on engaging with policy makers. In a follow up post, I’ll talk about what I learned from my visit to The Hill.

Policy Engagement Fundamentals

  1. Don’t communicate to policy makers, communicate with policy makers.
  2. Lasting policy engagement is about relationships. One thing to remember is that there can be a lot of turnover of staffers, and staffers are doing most of the work. So you might need to go over the same things over and over again. Reach out continually, as the dynamic and the staffers are continuously changing.
  3. Do your homework. Know about their district & constituents, know what committees they’re on, know their general views on things.
  4. Try to find a connection between things the policy maker is currently working on and things you are interested in or things you know about. Figure out their concerns and explain how what you are proposing helps (e.g., in terms of jobs).
  5. Be honest. This goes without saying, hopefully, but it’s worth including in this list anyway!
  6. Come at the right time — be strategic about when you approach them and be clear what you are asking for. Think about what your goals are! This could be influencing federal or state legislation, influencing regulations, influencing a politician’s rhetoric, or simply providing expert advice. (Aside: I found the idea of influencing their rhetoric interesting. It wasn’t something I’d really thought about before, but it makes sense, and it’s something that seems more tractable to me. I can imagine helping a politician come up with a compelling sound bite about, say, the value of basic research.)
  7. Think about what science policy you want to talk about: you might be interested in policy for science (e.g., funding for NSF) or in science for policy (e.g., climate change).
  8. Remember that not all people will reach the same conclusion when presented with the same information. Or, to quote former Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, “it is important to remember that not all people will reach the same policy conclusion based on the same scientific information – even if they understand and accept that information”.
  9. Similarly, Congressional staffers and legislators are drinking from a firehose of information. (See Update below!) Before he became the CEO of AAAS, Rush Holt was a Congressman, who said,We do not suffer from a lack of information here on Capitol Hill, but from a lack of ability to glean the knowledge and gauge the validity, credibility, and usefulness of the large amounts of information and advice received on a daily basis. Although we would like to believe that the scientific and technical advice and assessment provided from outside remains politically neutral, this is not necessarily the case.” (Emphasis is mine)
  10. Science is just one factor of many in policy making. Politicians are also considering jobs, domestic priorities, priorities within their state/district, getting re-elected, and a variety of other things. This helps explain point 8 above, as different people will weight these different factors differently, leading to different views on what course makes the most sense.
  11. To combine a few of the above points: Policy decisions are not black-and-white, and, if you’ve established a relationship with a legislator or staffer, you can help them navigate gray areas.
  12. In person visits from a constituent are by far the most effective way to engage. (I’ll talk about these more in my follow up post)
  13. The typical way a bill becomes a law is that it starts with subcommittee hearings, then there’s a draft bill that sometimes goes to a subcommittee markup (this is more common on the House side), which then goes to a full committee markup. Once it’s done being edited, the full bill goes to a vote. There are exceptions to the process, though (as with health care in the Senate right now) and there are differences between the House and the Senate in terms of how subcommittees tend to work. But that’s the big picture overview of the typical process. If you are interested in influencing legislation, knowing where it is in the process is helpful; if you want to influence wording, getting in early is important. You don’t need to write the whole bill — sometimes you can have a big impact just by changing a couple of words in it.
  14. Once a bill is passed, an appropriations committee needs to give it funding for it to actually be enacted. This process is very important, too.
  15. Remember that not all policy decisions occur at the federal level! Important things happen at the state and local levels — sometimes, engaging with one’s local Board of Education or a neighborhood advisory committee can have more of an impact.
  16. The media has a really strong impact on policymakers. So, getting your story into the media can help, but you also need to keep in mind that other major/breaking stories might bump your topic.

How to craft a message that is effective

  1. Tell your story clearly and with context.
  2. Have a story — don’t just bombard the legislator or staffers with facts. People find personal narratives (e.g., about the process of discovery) compelling. Suspense or unexpected results are also engaging, as are details that allow the person to feel like they were there.
  3. Share your informed opinions, and be willing to say when you are unsure about something.
  4. Funding for science is not an entitlement, so we need to make a case for it. Talking about jobs, the economy, and training a highly skilled workforce is often compelling to policymakers.

My own experiences

So far, my experience interacting with legislators has been limited. Recently, I printed off copies of my Ensia piece on the importance of having strong environmental protections and the text of my March for Science talk, which talks about the value of basic research and the importance of diversity in science. I sent those to my two Senators and my Congresswoman. They are all Democrats who generally support science funding, but I still thought it might be useful to reach out to them. I attached a note saying that I live in Ann Arbor and would be happy to talk more if they were interested. A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from a staffer at Senator Debbie Stabenow’s office thanking me for sending them and saying they’ve added me to a list of people who they can reach out to in the future. I have no idea if anything will come of that, but it was nice to know that I wasn’t just mailing things into the void!

Aside from that, my only direct experience was during my meetings with staffers on Capitol Hill last week. I’ll talk about those more in my next post.

Additional resources

  1. AAAS has a site, Force for Science, on how to advocate for science.
  2. Stand Up for Science, a free online course by UMich’s RELATE, which includes a section on engaging with policy makers.
  3. Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science Network Workshop Series
  4. The European Commission has an Evidence for Policy Community


As I said above, I’ll follow up next week with more about what I learned during my visit to Congress — it was really interesting! And, in the meantime, I’d love to hear from others who’ve engaged with policymakers to hear about how the process went and what advice they’d give to people who are new at engaging with policymakers.


This slide from AAAS, based on data from the National Journal, shows more on the firehose of information. I found it interesting, so thought it worth adding to this post.

Data on the volume of different kinds of information that Congressional staffers receive each day

Slide courtesy of AAAS, using data from the National Journal


20 thoughts on “How can scientists engage with policy makers? (Updated!)

  1. This is great! Another additional resource/background reading is this classic paper:

    Ludwig, Donald, Marc Mangel, and Brent Haddad. “Ecology, conservation, and public policy.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 32, no. 1 (2001): 481-517.

    As an added bonus, the authors manage to weave Bayesian stats into a review of outreach and engagement for ecologists.

    • Thanks for the recommendation! That reminds me that I should have thought to include Nancy Baron’s Escape from the Ivory Tower on my list. It covers how to engage with policy makers.

  2. #4 is specifically important if you are working outside the US. Try to understand the problems they are trying to solve (e.g. spatial planning, Aichi/SDG targets etc.), instead of trying to sell research questions you are interested in.

  3. I would recommend two additions to your list: a) Go to the people before going to the policy maker, and b) make darned certain you are genuinely bipartisan.

    • Can you elaborate on what you mean by “go to the people”? I have guesses (e.g., writing opinion pieces, doing outreach events), but I’m not sure exactly what you mean.


      • Certainly- I think it includes what you mention, and potentially other things too. I have found over decades of lobbying that legislators really tune in to what you are saying if they know you have a “community” of support. Legislators have two big concerns on their minds- money and votes. If even, say, 15% of their constituency has taken issue with something, then they will pay very close attention.

        My two most recent lobbying successes involved getting two senators (one Democrat, one Republican) to completely reverse their positions on two hot-button issues (both environmental in nature, but independent of one another). Lots and lots of science was done concerning each of these issues- but that did not change their minds. However, when these senators realized we had pulled together diverse components of their electorate to support our view, the about faces were instantaneous.

        Once they flipped their positions, folks on the other side of their aisle got on the bandwagon and legislation was introduced and passed at lightning speed. I call these not watershed events, but tectonic shifts in the statehouse. The partisan divide can and does evaporate in a heartbeat when votes are on the line. Yesterday’s enemy is today’s bosom buddy if it involves a campaign donation or handful of votes. It is a formula that has never failed me, but in my experience, it seems to involve anywhere from 5 to 10 years of work. It ain’t easy, but it is effective.

        Opinion letters, meeting appearances, public speaking, door to door communication, social media- the whole nine yards- and by all means, as corny as it sounds, the local barbershop. Word on the street is vital to any politician. I once changed a county-level regulation by starting a rumor at the local barbershop… no kidding.

      • Thanks for the additional explanation! That is really interesting — thank you so much for sharing!

      • Thank you too! I enjoyed your post. While many would disagree, I have found that a narrowly divided US Senate has been very fruitful for lobbying, in large part because flipping a single vote is often all you need to get things accomplished.

  4. Question Meghan: did any of this strike you as sobering or even a little depressing? For instance, one implication of “policy engagement is about relationships” is that an individual who does a few one-off things (e.g., writing a single Medium post on a policy issue) is basically wasting their time. Even doing a bunch of one-off things targeted at different people or audiences arguably is a waste of time, since you don’t build any relationships that way. And one (realist? cynical?) implication of your #4 and #10 is “the only way to argue for basic science is to present it as a jobs program, or as the first step to curing cancer.”

    So I guess my question is, is the message here “go big or go home” when it comes to policy engagement? If you’re not going to do it in a serious way, are you better off just lending support (e.g., via donating money) to people who are serious about it? And/or just engaging the way any other private citizen would? (e.g., voting, making political donations, contacting your representative when legislation you care about is being considered, etc.)

    • Great questions, Jeremy. I think it is easy to become cynical not only from a political perspective but also a scientific one. The periodicity we now see in the US concerning funding for science and related applications (medicine, environment, etc) has not always been that way. These used not to be partisan issues.

      The change came about post-Watergate. Nixon and his conservative predecessors were champions of these things, and so too were many Democrats. If you did not live during that era, then it is difficult to understand just how deeply Watergate has transformed politics in America. The resentment was unprecedented and it exists to this day. I believe all we can do is wait for the old guard to retire and then hope the next generation behaves differently. It was likely no mistake, for example, that Hillary Clinton was once a Watergate prosecutor…

      The conservatives initially vented their Watergate ire via the Reagan administration. No less than 2/3 of the federal bureaucracy was inked out of existence by Reagan. That too is difficult for people to envision if they did not live through it. It was no less, and I would say far much more than the equivalent of the burning of Rome. From this revolution came the partisan divide concerning science and the environment.

      This is why, among other reasons that I emphasized in my initial response the need of true bipartisanship in any lobbying effort. We cannot change the dynamic that frustrates you and so many other scientists until we close the partisan gap. And as we are now learning with healthcare and other programs, when one party enacts reforms while excluding the other party from the conversation, the resentment and retaliation simply get worse, not better.

      We must work together, period.

      • My question wasn’t actually to do with partisanship. I don’t think any of the advice in the post is specific to a highly polarized political environment. And I’d have asked the same question about this advice back in, say, 1985, when the US was much less politically polarized.

      • I thought I was responding to your question of how best to engage policy.

      • @ Elliot: I found this On The Media segment on how the environment got political to be really interesting: It emphasizes how the environment was a bipartisan issue as recently as the 1970s. I’ve been thinking about whether to cover this when I teach about these issues in Intro Bio. I occasionally have a student complain that I’m teaching about a political hoax when I teach about climate change. I wonder if it would help to note that this has not always been a partisan issue.

    • @ Jeremy: I’m not sure yet whether I think there’s a go-big-or-go-home yet aspect to this. But I definitely think there is a positive feedback loop — once you do some engagement, you’re more likely to be asked to do more. As a very recent example, I wrote a Medium piece on the impact of Trump’s proposed budget on science, and was then invited on Michigan Radio’s Stateside program to do an interview on it. So, one led to the other, and probably both will lead to future opportunities. And, my experience of writing some things and sending them to my legislators has made it more likely that they will call me about something in the future — though I have no idea whether or when that will happen or what it will involve.

      So, maybe the way I would frame it is: there’s lots of potential to be involved, and doing one thing to engage opens up lots of other doors. But, to mix my metaphors, you can always decide to get off the engagement merry-go-round if you decide it’s not for you or that you need to focus on other things.

      But, to get to your bigger question: the impact of any one activity (and, therefore, the impact of just dipping one’s toe in to the engagement pool — now I’m just seeing how many metaphors I can get in here!) is often hard to quantify, and so it will be hard to say whether it seems like it’s having enough of an impact to warrant that activity. To go back to the example of my Medium post and Stateside interview: people who already supported scientific funding certainly enjoyed it, but I have no idea if it influenced anyone who was on the fence about science funding, and I have no idea if anyone who wouldn’t have otherwise contacted their legislator to advocate for science funding did so because of hearing the interview or reading the piece.

      To add in yet one more metaphor: I still feel a bit like I’m throwing spaghetti against the wall, not having a sense for which activity will be impactful. To some extent, I think that’s because I’m still pretty new at this. But, based on talking to others with much more experience with this, I think that’s also just part of how it works. It seems like it’s hard to predict whether, say, a piece you write will be of interest to a publication or will influence a legislator or whatever.

    • Meghan- I believe bringing students with divergent views into the conversation can help. Although I got out of university teaching recently, I found that by restructuring how I graded assignments along with how I presented those assignments really mattered. In a non-majors ecology & environment course, which had numerous partisan themes, I communicated to my students that they would not be graded on the thesis argument they presented, per se, but rather how well they constructed and supported their argument. When I announced this for the first time, the half dozen or so conservative students in the class nearly shot out of their chairs and let out a cheer. So even though the curriculum was heavy with alternative energy, tribal rights, genocide so on and so forth- these conservative students thrived in my class. Every one of them earned an “A” for the course- simply because they were motivated and energized. There was no longer that feeling they had to regurgitate in order to succeed. So yes, I think including the historical perspective as you mention could be very helpful. I’ve never done it, but I am betting you would open some minds.

    • It’s fine with me for you to excerpt the first part for EcoTone and then link over to this post! I’d like to keep the full post over here, though. Thanks for checking!

  5. Pingback: What I learned from my visit to Capitol Hill about engaging with policy makers and mentoring students | Dynamic Ecology

  6. I have gone to The Hill numerous times to discuss federal funding for research. I would highly recommend the following resources from FASEB: and the American Physiology Society:

    Regardless of the issue that you are talking about, at some point ask how you can help particularly if they appear sympathetic to your issue. Also, always follow up with an email thanking them for their time and re-capping the purpose of your meeting.

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