What I learned from my visit to Capitol Hill about engaging with policy makers and mentoring students

As I discussed last week, the most eye-opening part of the AAAS Leshner Fellows training that I did recently was the part about engaging with policy makers. This is a new area of engagement for me, and I was really interested in learning more about this. I was surprised to realize how interested I was in it — when I first read Nancy Baron’s Escape from the Ivory Tower, the thought of engaging with policy makers was so anxiety-provoking to me that I felt ill. (It probably didn’t help that I was reading it on a plane going through turbulence.) Last week’s post covered some policy engagement fundamentals (make sure to read this great comment by Elliot Rosenthal on the importance of building community support before doing policy engagement). In this post, I will talk about what I learned on our visit to Capitol Hill. One of the most striking things to me was that, when meeting with two staffers from the House Energy & Commerce Committee, it took me a while to remember which one was the staffer working on the Republican side and which was on the Democratic side. Given all the talk of how divided things are in Washington, I hadn’t expected that! I also hadn’t expected the meeting would leave me not just with thoughts on how to engage with policy makers, but how to mentor students.

We started out by meeting with two staffers from the House Energy & Commerce Committee. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, especially in terms of how much we would be giving our pitches for what we wanted to see. In the end, it was much more of a conversation about how scientists can engage effectively with policy makers. It was a really interesting conversation, I think largely because the staffers were really good at bridging between the worlds of science and policy. One of them had a PhD in Biology, and the other had a Masters in Health Administration and a law degree, so they both understand academia and science in a much deeper way than I had expected. As I said in the intro, the most striking thing to me was that, throughout the conversation, I couldn’t remember which one of them was on the Republican side and which on the Democratic. (They had introduced themselves and who they worked for, but, just from the Congresspersons’ names, I couldn’t remember which side of the aisle they were on.) That really struck me because there is so much emphasis on how partisan everything is right now.

Other points related to engaging with policy makers that stood out to me from the conversation:

  1. Call your Congressperson’s local office and invite them to visit your lab. While they’re visiting, you can tell them about the work you do and the funding agencies that allow you to do that work.
  2. Most Congresspeople (who the staffers tend to call “Members”, short for “Members of Congress) and their staffers are trying to cultivate a group of people they can call on.
  3. It’s valuable to reach out to your Congressperson even if they tend not to agree with you on issues, and even if they aren’t on a science-related committee. The latter was a little surprising to me, since I had thought most of the work would be done by people on the relevant committees. But they pointed out that Members can write a bill even if they aren’t on the relevant committee, and they will all ultimately vote on bills that make it out of the committee.
  4. You are unlikely to get through to someone who isn’t your representative unless you have experience highly relevant to what they are interested in (e.g., someone with expertise in Zika would have had lots of folks in Congress interested in talking with them last year). If you see a Congressperson working on an issue you have expertise in, contact them. But there isn’t a point in contacting someone who isn’t your Congressperson if you don’t have expertise directly relevant to something they are working on.
  5. For people who work on infectious diseases (which is the focus of this year’s Leshner Fellows cohort), support for health-related research is strong on both sides of the aisle.
  6. Similar to what had been emphasized in the policy engagement fundamentals that I discussed last week, the staffers emphasized that there’s lots of turnover, with people moving between committees, or moving from the staff of a particular Congressperson to a committee, or people moving on to other jobs outside Congress and being replaced by new staffers. All that means that reaching out over and over again is important, and that it’s okay if you feel like you’re having the same conversation repeatedly. They mentioned that some interest groups do a really great job of getting their members to visit Congress once a year (we saw a bunch of people in AAUW shirts the day we were there!), and that they remember those people and their stories. You don’t want to pester the staffers, but reaching out to them routinely (say, a couple of times a year) is a good thing.

Points related to training undergraduates and graduate students:

Because both of the staffers we were talking to had been to grad school, the conversation ended up turning to how to train students to be better prepared to engage with policy makers. One theme was that they wished it was more clear to students (at both the undergraduate and graduate levels) that there are lots of non-academic careers, and that the skills they develop as a scientist — including analytical thinking abilities, literature research skills, and systems thinking — are highly transferable. One theme was that we need to do a better job of helping students find careers that match their interests, and of not making it seem like non-academic careers are second-rate. This is all stuff that others have said before, of course, but it was still a really interesting conversation and it got me thinking about whether there’s something I could do differently in Intro Bio that would get students to start thinking about this (especially about how the skills they will develop if they are a STEM major will be broadly useful, including if they are interested in policy).

We then got to go over to the Senate side:

picture showing a sign with an arrow pointing the way to the Senate

Sign directing us from the House side to the Senate side

One fun part was getting to take the subway that runs under Congress to get over there!

Leshner Fellow Karen Levy (Emory University) ready to get on the Senate subway!

One of the staffers from the House E&C committee walked us over, and it was nice to get to chat with her more on the way.

Once we got to the Senate side, we met with staffers from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). To be blunt, this meeting was less exciting to me than the one on the House side. It might have been that it was later in the day and I was tired, or because the staffers didn’t have the same science backgrounds as the ones on the House side, or because there were so many more staffers in this meeting (making it feel less personal), or some combination of those, but, in the end, this meeting wasn’t as engaging. The conversation also felt more guarded — there were lots of cliches in the responses from staffers. And it was easy to see who was on which side of the aisle, especially when a question related to health care reform came up. (I was a bit shocked at how strongly one of the staffers shut down that discussion. He was polite, but also very clearly not interested in discussing it.) I would have guessed that the House might be more partisan (since the people there are representing smaller — and often pretty homogenous — districts, compared to a Senator who represents an entire state, but things definitely felt more partisan to me on the Senate side.

Overall, it was a really interesting experience that left me with a few key thoughts:

  1. I should reach out more to my legislators — and perhaps especially to my Congresswoman — and I should do this regularly. I might make it a regular habit to mail or email them things I’ve written that are relevant to policy.
  2. It made me realize I should pay attention when the organizations I’m part of organize Hill Days, and that I should consider trying to set up meetings on The Hill when I’m in DC for something else (such as an NSF panel).
  3. I should think more about how to talk with undergraduates about the broad skills they gain as part of training in biology, and about how broadly applicable those skills are. I’ve thought about this at the graduate level in terms of non-academic careers, but hadn’t thought a lot about how I might talk about this in a course like Intro Bio. (I’d love to hear from others who’ve thought more about this!)

I’d also love to hear from others who’ve visited Capitol Hill and/or the local offices of their legislators about how their visits went. Did you meet with a staffer or the Congressperson/Senator? How long was your meeting? Did you feel like it was effective?



7 thoughts on “What I learned from my visit to Capitol Hill about engaging with policy makers and mentoring students

  1. Question inspired by the partisanship that was evident at your second meeting Meghan: would your key thoughts be any different if you lived in a district represented by someone from the other political party? (I’m assuming that your federal representative is someone from your party) Or would your thoughts stay the same, but only apply to political engagement on non-partisan issues (e.g., because they’re very local issues, or not politically salient to most people)?

    I ask because the US seems to be moving towards a bad equilibrium where most representatives hold safe seats, and where good policy (especially on the Republican side) is defined as “whatever the other side doesn’t like”. In that equilibrium, representatives can just politely (or even impolitely!) ignore their constituents from the minority party, and anecdotally it seems like that’s increasingly what they do. They can also ignore non-partisan offers of information and expertise, and anecdotally that increasingly seems to be what they do. Meaning not that they’ll hang up on you if you call them, of course. But that the ritual of listening to constituents and the firehose of outside information is increasingly just that–a ritual. And insofar as it’s not, it’s a matter of representatives looking for material (information, personal anecdotes, etc.) that they can use as political ammunition.

    I guess what I’m asking is, is #3 on your list something that was once true but is now false, but which representatives and staffers can’t *publicly admit* is now false? Or perhaps #3 only remains true regarding local/non-salient issues (e.g., not health care)? Because the hypothetical possibility that members of Congress can write their own bills *on any matter of importance*, get them out of committee, and get them voted on by members who are going to make their own decisions rather than toeing the party line just seems very out of line with current US reality.

    But I freely admit that I have no idea what individual scientists (or any individual citizen, really) could do to move the country away from that bad equilibrium. So I’m hoping you have an answer to my question, because I don’t!

    • No, I actually feel like I would be more motivated to contact my representatives and Senators if their views differed more from mine. Right now, with a Congresswoman and Senators whose views on big policy issues generally align with mine, I contact them to thank them for supporting science (or, this week, for opposing the proposed health care legislation). This Leshner Fellow training made me realize that I could also contact them to form a relationship as someone who could be a useful source of information and to influence their rhetoric (e.g., by providing a compelling anecdote about the value of basic research). But if I was in a district with a Republican representative (as many of my UMich colleagues are), I would be able to reach out to talk about the way the economy is impacted by our work, or to talk about how it might help us learn more about — and better protect — lakes in their district. (Given that much of my fieldwork is in Republican districts, I could still do the latter, I suppose.) So, I’d say that I don’t think it would make it feel like I shouldn’t do it, but it would change what my engagement goals and talking points were.

  2. “It’s valuable to reach out to your Congressperson even if they tend not to agree with you on issues, and even if they aren’t on a science-related committee.”

    That is a brilliant observation and a key insight to the workings of DC. I have found it useful to bear in mind that our representatives are, at the end of the day, just ordinary folks. As Hillary infamously said during the campaign, she held “both private and public positions” on many issues. It was dumb of her to say so in public, but the truth is, all of our politicians operate in this manner. While their respective party’s have a great many positions, which, in public they generally support- in private they might either not care all that much, or feel quite otherwise.

    This is where the nuance of lobbying can make great progress. It is both common and quite easy for politicians to attach “riders” to bills that have little or nothing to do with the bill in of itself. So, for example, if we are lobbying an issue which involves a small geographic region and impacts relatively few people, it may not matter to most people in DC. It might also be the case that generally speaking, the position you are lobbying for is not held by the representative(s) you are working with. However, it could be the case those politicians simply do not want to expend any time or energy fighting something that could be resolved with something as easy as a rider. In most cases, these add-ons get little to no attention from the media, so there is often no blow-back for the politician. And then, come campaign season, they can point to these things as evidence of “bipartisanship” in hopes of capturing some cross-over votes.

    Lobbying does involve a lot of gamesmanship, but sometimes all you need do is offer the path of least resistance. Little victories are much much easier than big ones, so often it is best to to build it “one piece at a time”.

  3. This is such a timely piece for me. My post-doc is at a crown research institute so a lot of my research is fed back into policy. Although grad school prepared me for the experimental design/manuscript writing/long hours, I am really playing catch up with how my research can be communicated to and used by the government. As I hopefully will be able to start teaching again soon, this is definitely in my periphery for the classroom.

  4. Hi Meg,

    I’m pleased to see you emphasize training for non-academic jobs. IMO this is your strongest selling point for basic research and university education.

    I have an MS in geology and have worked in the mining industry, but I’ve done several other things too, and I’ve trained and/or worked with many college graduates and including people with master’s degrees. I generally find that most students really suffer from a lack of knowledge of how to apply their skills to different situations. In school they learn a specific circumstance that they’ve worked with, but they rarely see the more general principles underlying that circumstance and even if they do see that a principle is relevant to a certain problem they don’t understand how to apply their knowledge to solve it.

    gotta run but hopefully I’ll have time to elaborate later.

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