STEPS Congressional Visit Day 2017

The graduate student organization Science, Technology, and Engineering Policy Society (STEPS) sent a delegation of three graduate students to Washington D.C. the first week of April. Their goals: to advocate for robust federal investments in scientific research and to encourage the use of science in the policy making process. STEPS coordinated with similar science policy groups, organized by the National Science Policy Group (NSPG), from across the country to maximize their impact by converging on Capitol Hill on the same day. This was the fourth annual Congressional Visit Day organized by NSPG.

The three STEPS members, Nicholas Warren, Shan Chen, and Huanping Huang, coordinated meetings with the New Hampshire delegation, as well as Senators from their home states of Minnesota and Oklahoma. The vast majority of congressional office visits do not include the representatives themselves. Usually, a legislative aide who covers the topic of interest is the primary contact person, but that doesn’t make the meeting any less important: representatives rely heavily on the input of their staffers when considering legislation and are able to have far more in-depth conversations on their areas of expertise. The type of staffer can also vary greatly. STEPS met with some aides who have PhDs in science as well as freshly graduated political science majors. Meetings with staffers that lack a background in hard sciences can be quite stimulating; they provide an opportunity to teach about how the world of science operates.

A major focus of the office visits were the President’s proposed cuts to federal agencies that provide essential funds for scientific research, including at Dartmouth. Approximately $7 billion is proposed to be cut from the National Institute of Health alone over the next 18 months, in addition to significant cuts at other agencies. Nick, Shan, and Huanping felt it was important that Congress heard how these cuts would affect research at Dartmouth and institutions across the country. Fortunately, the offices they visited from both sides of the aisle, were enthusiastic about maintaining or increasing funding for science. According to their visits, it is likely that Congress will make significant changes to the President’s proposed budget that will be more beneficial for the scientific enterprise. A majority in both houses of Congress and the President must agree on a budget before it becomes law. There are two budgetary deadlines coming up this year. A “Continuing Resolution” to fund the government through October of this year is due by April 28th and the 2018 fiscal year budget is due in October. If a budget fails to pass by the deadline, the government will shutdown until a deal is reached.

NSPG also organized a day of science communication training for the participating graduate students. The keynote presenter was Lynn Marquis, from the Life Sciences Coalition. Lynn spent many years working in congressional offices and shared her valuable experience of communicating to policy makers. Her advice consisted of 5 main points:

  1. Make the message personally relevant to the person you are talking to: If you can get a Congressional staffer to be personally invested in what you are talking about they are more likely to remember what you had to say. Doing some research on which committees a representative sits on, what relevant legislation they have supported, and their current priorities ahead of the visit is critical. Understanding which issues an office or a particular staffer care about can help develop discussion strategies that will make a larger impact. Ultimately, effective talking points will highlight how your issue specifically affects the state/district that your representative is responsible for.
  2. Stay on message: You should prepare a very clear and simple “Ask.” For this visit day, our asks were to support science funding and the use of science in policy making. Another common strategy is to “Ask” your representative to support/oppose a particular bill. Following your “Ask,” every talking point you present should help support that position. Only talk about extraneous issues if you can directly tie it back to your main “Ask.” Whatever you do, don’t bring up partisan politics! Supporting science shouldn’t be a partisan issue!
  3. Don’t use jargon: Most staffers in Washington do not have a hard science background, even if they do, they probably do not specialize in your field. Make sure you explain your research and your talking points in plain language that does not include uncommon and/or long words. Practice talking about your research and your talking points before the meeting with somebody outside of your field of expertise to help cut down on jargon.
  4. Go into every meeting trying to make friends: Even if you have deep ideological differences with the representative and their staff, it is incredibly beneficial for both parties if you can find any common ground to build a relationship. One goal of visiting a congressional office is to be a resource if they have any questions in the future about science.
  5. Say “Thank You”: No matter how the meeting went, you should thank the office for supporting your issue. More importantly, send a follow up email to say thank you once again and to keep the channels of communication open. Since you have hopefully made a personal connection with a staffer, they are more likely to read your future emails and listen to what you have to say.  

You can also make your voice heard without going to Washington D.C. Representatives frequently hold town halls back home, which are great opportunities to see them in person. Other options include calling or emailing their offices. Staffers read or listen to every single email and phone call and compile that information on a regular basis into a report to the representative. You can find the contact information for your representatives on either www.house.gov or www.senate.gov

Funding for the STEPS Congressional Visit Day was generously provided by the School of Graduate and Advanced Studies’ Professional Development Fund. Nick, Shan, and Huanping will be sharing their experiences from the Congressional Visit day at the next STEPS lunch meeting on Tuesday, April 11th at 1pm in Haldeman 124. Anybody interested in learning more about their visit is welcome! Please RSVP to [email protected]