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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
One fun part was getting to take the subway that runs under Congress to get over there!
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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?