Dynamic Ecology

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.

Slide courtesy of AAAS, using data from the National Journal