Three Tips for Getting Political Candidates on the Record About Science

, Research Analyst | September 16, 2020, 9:00 am EDT
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One of the most devastating lessons we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is that when science is sidelined by the government, people pay for it with their lives. As we approach 200,000 people dead due to the novel coronavirus in the US, along with millions of sick and hospitalized, it is the responsibility of all of us to encourage our government representatives to restore the role of science in policymaking during the pandemic and beyond.

Like many people in this nation, I’m tired and angered by the numerous attempts of our state and federal officials to censor scientists, bury reports, and suppress data, actions which have prevented us from using the best available science to slow the spread of a deadly pathogen in communities across the US. And I’m downright incensed that, as a result of this sidelining of science, the worst effects of COVID-19 are falling disproportionately on Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Pacific Islander communities, communities that have faced decades of disenfranchisement and underinvestment that resulted in enormous and long-standing health inequities, even before COVID-19.

But we the people of the US should never forget that we have the power to change things. Our democratic system was founded on John Locke’s principle of a social contract, that governments exist by the consent of the governed in order to protect the rights of the people and promote the public good. Therefore, as the 2020 election looms on the horizon, it is important to remind candidates running for office that one of the vital ways that they can protect the public good is by promoting and strengthening the role of science in policymaking. The lives of our loved ones and neighbors depend on it.

How to get the candidates talking about the importance of science in policymaking

Local, state, and federal candidates are vying for your votes and will act as your voice in the highest levels of government. We need to do all that we can to make sure that candidates understand the importance of science in policymaking and how science is fundamental in how we protect the environment and people’s health and safety.

Back in March, I wrote about key questions that you can ask candidates on how they will protect science and democracy to aid the public good. In this post, I’d like to explore three practical tips for engaging with candidates and making your voice heard during election season. You can read further details in our action guide.

Tip 1: Tell your personal story

One of the most powerful tools you have is telling your personal stories to candidates, stories that demonstrate on a tangible level why science and democracy matter to you. The more local and concrete you can make your message, the more likely you’ll be to get the attention of a candidate.

If possible, try and bring your own personal stories into this mix. Last year, the small sleepy town I grew up in experienced a devastating mass shooting event at a Jewish synagogue. I had spent that weekend calling, texting, or reaching out on Facebook to my friends, family, and old high school classmates to make sure my loved ones were physically safe and if they were emotionally OK. On Monday morning, I channeled my grief into this blog post where I advocated for gun violence research at the CDC.

Tip 2: Make a specific “ask”

The best way to get candidates to act on your behalf is to be specific about what you want them to do. So whether it’s at a virtual town hall or through a letter to the editor, ask them questions that will make the candidate respond to the specific positions, topics, or policies that you care deeply about and want their responses on. You can do this in two ways:

  • If your goal is to get them to take a specific position, frame it as a yes or no question. e.g. “Will you commit to…”
  • If your goal is to get them to state what they will do on an issue, frame it directly as “What actions will you take to…”

This allows you to get the candidate on the record on important topics, gives you a better sense of how they would represent you in office, and allows you to hold your candidate to their campaign promise if they get elected.

Tip 3: Use Twitter as tool for engagement

Twitter represents an excellent way to engage with candidates, and you can take advantage of the public nature of the platform to leverage responses from candidates with relatively minimal effort. You can also use Twitter and other social media sites to search for debates, townhalls, or other virtual gatherings that allow public input and discussion in your district. Ask questions of candidates via Twitter using the following two techniques:

  • Tweet your question at the candidates, using their campaign Twitter handles
  • Include any relevant hashtags they might use for events or specific issues

This way, the candidates and their Twitter followers will be more likely to see the question you ask, thereby increasing the chance that the candidate will respond to you.

Conclusion

We have the power to advocate for the issues and values that we hold dear and to hold our government accountable for the actions they take. Especially in this age of COVID-19, scientists and science advocates like us need to engage with our political representatives and make clear to them our demand that policymakers utilize the best available science to protect our health and safety.

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  • Clairissa Hansen

    This is fabulous advice. Thank you for giving tangible ways the average person can advocate for better representation and social progress. I just found out about the Union of Concerned Scientists and I am enamored by the work you all are doing. Would you please tell me a little more about your job? I am on the verge of a career shift and am looking for ways to be involved with science advocacy that utilize my biological science background in ways that can shape public policy.