#EB2013: The Scientist-Advocate


Policy needs more science. Science needs more funding. Funding needs limited politically motivated restrictions. These are common refrains among the scientific community, but what do we need to do to get there?

On Saturday, the American Physiological Society hosted a session entitled “How to be a science advocate in your own backyard”, and the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology held a policy session, “How scientists can save the world”. Both societies fielded excellent panels of professionals engaged in science, science outreach, and science policy: for APS, Gina Schatteman (professor emeritus at UIowa, former AAAS policy fellow, and director of iExplore STEM), Tim Leshan (vice president for government relations at Northeastern University), Michele Sukup Jackson (PhD candidate and member of MIT Science Policy Initiative), and William Talman (professor at UIowa and former president of FASEB); for ASBMB, Tania Baker (professor and head of Department of Biology at MIT), Darlene Cavalier (founder of Science Cheerleader and SciStarter), and Craig Mello (professor at UMass Med and Nobel laureate).

I strongly believe that basic science holds the keys to the universe, and we have a responsibility to do important research and explain it to the world.

– Tania Baker

Advocacy can take many forms, from talking to your neighbor to coordinating with the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. Schatteman divided advocacy into 2 categories: direct – working through official channels to affect policy, talking to your Congress representative; and indirect or “stealth”, being an advocate just by being a scientist and talking to people you know. Talking to your family and neighbors about what you do is a great way to get started. It’s a (mostly) non-threatening venue to practice talking about science to a non-science audience. Plus your family is kind of stuck listening to you but will also be honest about how you’re doing (Baker commented that your family will smack you if you’re doing a bad job :)). Next try a science festival; the presentations are short, and you have multiple chances to give it and modify it as necessary. Or maybe teach a science course for non-majors. Baker mentioned that her department is integrating communications into all parts of the science curriculum. Cavalier is leveraging Science Cheerleader and SciStarter to increase interest and investment of the public in science. In other words, opportunities to engage with non-scientists and promote science are all around us.

If we’re not passionate about keeping science going, we probably shouldn’t be doing it anyway.

– Bill Talman

However, direct advocacy – engaging with legislators – remains critical. Leshan put it nicely: “If you don’t advocate for what you care about, a million other people will be advocating for what they care about, and you will not be heard.” Talman encouraged scientists to not be “the typical NPR listener – all listen and no pay”. In science, we should pay our dues for the opportunity to do science by advocating for science. But approaching a Congressional representative might be an intimidating prospect for many scientists. Starting with local, “stealth” advocacy allows us to become comfortable discussing our science, but we must take a different approach to legislative advocacy. A few key points emerged:

  • Do your homework. Find out the representative’s record and stance on issues.
  • Hone your message. Have one or two key points.
  • Have a clear pitch. Your goal should be to inform legislators of your research and its importance, but there needs to be a clear ‘ask’.
  • Make evident how the issue affects the representative’s constituency and how you can help him or her with that issue. Talman recommended writing your areas of expertise on the back of your business card, so that staffers know with which issues you can help.
  • Learn how to present your message in a way that others will listen to it – especially when dealing with controversial topics. Schatteman provided herself, a stem cell biologist, as an example.  If she’s talking to someone she knows is a proponent for stem cell research, her approach is straightforward, easy; she can say “stem cell biologist” and know that she hasn’t shut down the discussion immediately. If someone has a record of voting against embryonic stem cell work, she emphasizes “adult stem cells”. Some people may immediate shut down at the mention of “stem cells”, so she starts with a target disease and implications.

If we based [science] policy on science, the world would be a different place. We base policy on emotions and politics.

– Gina Schatteman

  • Be flexible. Leshan shared an experience of a meeting in which the representative requested that the scientist end the meeting with a prayer. The scientists obliged and has maintained a strong connection with the representative.
  • Follow up and use multimedia to your advantage. For example, make sure that you have a webpage that includes a summary of your research and public engagement in terms that a non-scientist can understand.
  • Work with allies such as your institution’s government relations office or your professional society’s policy committee to coordinate efforts.
  • If you’re interested and willing, learn the ropes from the inside. Schatteman started off with her university conflict of interest committee; she progressed to first to the university’s and then to a professional society’s legislative affairs committee before spending a year as a AAAS policy fellow – this after she had established here independent research career.
  • Legislative advocacy cycles back to the public. The public – our our families, friends, and neighbors – help decide science policy by voting! Mello made the point that as long as the public doesn’t understand or even really care about science, “Congressional representation [of science] will be deficient”. We have to make the benefits of science clear.

If science is to continue to thrive, someone needs to advocate for it – and scientists must advocate for it. We don’t all need to be sitting in meetings on Capitol Hill. We don’t need to do all the advocacy. But we can each make a contribution to keep science and science policy moving forward

Further thoughts

Storify from APS Session

Storify from ASBMB Session

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2 Responses to #EB2013: The Scientist-Advocate

  1. Pingback: Experimental Biology 2013! | Neurotic Physiology

  2. BananaFurby says:

    This is a very important and interesting topic. The story about the prayer surprised me though. I’m not sure I would be able to do that.

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