For Effective Science Advocacy, Focus on Shared Values, and Speak Up Often

April 22, 2021
Steve Debenport/Getty Images
Sheeva Azma
Founder, Fancy Comma, LLC.

Let’s face it, it’s not possible to replace everyone in Congress with scientists and doctors (though, thinking about it, wouldn’t that be such a different world?). Nor need we—the depth of experience from our policymakers is what helps get stuff done in all facets of policy. The best way to hold the government accountable to its mission to protect the public good is for scientists to guide lawmakers to understand the importance of science research.

As someone who’s worked in Congress, I can tell you that legislative advocacy is surprisingly simple and even fun. It can take very little time. It’s also super effective! Not convinced? In 2020, Congress broke a 20-year drought to fund research on gun violence, in order to help figure out how to end the epidemic of mass shootings unraveling American society. That could not have been accomplished without bipartisan support of gun violence research which resulted from physicians’ outspoken support for such research, most notably, on social media.

Physicians persuaded Congress to act to protect American lives by creating the #ThisIsOurLane movement on Twitter. There, they also engaged directly with lawmakers—and it worked. The #ThisIsOurLane movement gained momentum. Doctors spoke on Capitol Hill. Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA-36), an emergency medicine physician himself, was among the lawmakers that organized a panel of doctors to discuss hospital gun violence impacts in Congress.

Scientists could learn a thing or two from doctors when it comes to legislative advocacy. There are tons of professional organizations dedicated to scientific fields that have very active Capitol Hill advocacy efforts, including the Society for Neuroscience, American Meteorological Society, and American Geophysical Union. You may want to check with your trade organization to see if they sponsor a Capitol Hill Visit Day—chances are that they do! Even if your organization does not have a formal Capitol Hill Day, you can always contact policymakers to voice your support for science (I’ll talk more about how to do that later in this post).

What does effective science advocacy look like?

What does it look like when scientists engage not just for science’s sake, but for outcomes that emphasize science as a public good? It would require scientists to first identify shared values that we hold dear as a nation. In the science world, this can be things like improving STEM education for a strong U.S. economy; tackling energy independence; curing diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease; and creating jobs.

The most important thing here is for scientists to focus on the value of science for the public good. Science also provides an excellent return on investment. Science funding pays dividends in new technologies, new cures, improved STEM education pipelines, and a stronger economy. These paybacks are not always tangible, so they are difficult to quantify, but they result from investments in basic science as well as more applied scientific discoveries. As L. Rafael Reif, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) wrote in 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: “If we hope for technological solutions in the future to some of humanity’s great challenges—Alzheimer’s, cancer, infectious disease, cybersecurity, safe nuclear power, climate change, water and food for the world—we must renew our national commitment to supporting basic science.” As the American Enterprise Institute writes, economists have also praised the dividends of science research investment, which leads to improved life expectancies and better health outcomes.

As a legislative intern working in Congress, I was initially tasked with answering the office phones, where I became interested in constituents’ stories and experiences. I also attended briefings, where I learned about unique experiences I might not have heard about otherwise—such as one patient’s inspiring story of beating stage 4 cancer or the challenges of living with a rare disease with no cure. The most powerful stories were grounded in personal experience, supported by research and data, and provided a clear call-to-action for Congress to make things better. That’s the kind of stuff we could easily pass along to the member of Congress and their staff to inform policy priorities. Less useful were people mass-mailing us from an address outside our district (those usually went in the trash). Sadly, a not insignificant part of answering the office phones was dealing with people who called us to complain, name-call, or spout conspiracy theories for 30 minutes (I am here to tell you that this is not an effective way to shape public policy).

For effective science advocacy, maintain a good long-term relationship with your lawmakers, regardless of their party. Yes, this means putting aside your disdain in order to have a meaningful discussion with your right-wing Congressperson’s staff about how science research directly benefits the United States and its people. For more on how exactly to advocate for science or be a resource to your lawmakers, check out this post.

Moving towards a STEM workforce trained in science policy

Sadly, science advocacy, in today’s science research culture, has been relegated to “outreach” or volunteer activities which are thought to detract from one’s scientific legitimacy. As a graduate student, I was encouraged to hide my interests in anything besides science research—advice which I did not follow. In graduate school, when I expressed my interest in science policy, professors I talked to encouraged me to quit science in favor of a public policy degree. They didn’t seem to understand that science policy is a foundational part of science research itself.

The result of an ignorance of science policy is that scientists’ voices are drowned out in favor of other lobbying organizations. Going back to my example of doctors helping fund gun violence research, these physicians were rallying against the National Rifle Association, who tweeted for “self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.” The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbying groups out there, so if physicians could take on the NRA via social media advocacy despite being incredibly busy with their work, scientists definitely can take on large advocacy problems and issues, too! They didn’t achieve this by rallying against the right wing (and many doctors are gun owners, themselves). Instead, medical professionals highlighted the medical consequences of gun violence, which killed nearly 20,000 people in 2020 in the United States alone.

Scientists can use their voices effectively to drive political change, but it won’t happen without a culture change in science, in which nonpartisan public advocacy is not only welcomed but taught as part of one’s scientific training.

Pillars of a nonpartisan public advocacy program could include:

  • How to discuss the value added by science research with policymakers
  • Communicating the benefits of science (including your own research) to the general public
  • Professionalism and strategies to “reach across the aisle” and set aside your own political views for the sake of advancing science research
  • Actionable steps to build relationships with policymakers via e-mail, social media, phone, Capitol Hill and in-district visits, etc.

Without a STEM workforce trained in science policy who can advocate for their work, the future of science—as a federally-funded endeavor—remains uncertain.

Sheeva Azma earned her B.S. from MIT in Brain & Cognitive Science and her Master's in Neuroscience from Georgetown University. As a graduate student, she earned an Honorable Mention from the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship; she also advocated for science funding on Capitol Hill as a Society for Neuroscience Early Career Policy Fellow. Sheeva spent three months as a legislative intern in a Congressional office in early 2017. She has also lectured at University of Rochester, University of Cincinnati, and Canada's McMaster University about the importance of science communication and science policy among scientists. A freelance writer since 2013, she is founder of her own science writing company, Fancy Comma, LLC. Learn more about Sheeva at www.sheevaazma.com.

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