Where Does Science Fit on Capitol Hill?

By Sam Sander Effron


Scientific research typically maintains a focused scope, allowing investigators to gain expertise and respect in the field. This can lead to a self-important view of one’s work and a distorted understanding of its priority (after all, if this wasn’t the case then why bother studying it?). Conversely, politicians are accountable to a broad population, and are must consider the myriad needs of their constituents. Public policy decisions affect a breadth of people, as such it is rare that a decision is determined by a single issue alone. It is more often the case that compromises are made across competing interests among several impacted groups, striving for a mutually agreeable outcome.

As scientists, we are trained to prepare ad nauseum for presentations. We prepare slide decks that thread together a comprehensive story about our research, reinforced with supplemental slides to bolster our rationale and fend off any lingering skeptics. These types of talks are aimed to convince the audience of the conclusions we infer from our data and why these findings are critical. However, as AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow Jesus Alvelo-Maurosa concisely summarized in the title of his talk, in order to effectively communicate, sometimes we just need to “Shut Up and Listen”. It is impossible to anticipate all of the interests that intersect with our research unless we interact with our audience.

Effective engagement in our political systems requires that we do our homework. To start, it’s important to consider feasibility and relevance as a way to identify the level of the government that is the most appropriate target. Local governments lack large-scale resource availability, but they serve a narrower range of peoples, and can be more discretionary toward measures that are pertinent to their groups. The higher up the bureaucratic ladder, the more competing interests exist in the race for consideration. 

Image credit: John Englart

Image credit: John Englart

It is here that underappreciated congressional staffers play a critical role. As gatekeepers of public interest, staffers often act as a liaison between the people and politicians, taking the time to understand the desires of their constituents. They distill the key points and convey the bottom-line to their politician. Staffers are often overlooked as underlings to the real policymakers, but in fact they wield substantial power. They must be knowledgeable about the wide-ranging topics that are relevant to their district. Frequently interfacing with the public, staffers are exposed to larger trends among their constituents, from which they must create a narrative to communicate these various perspectives to their policymaking superiors.

While it might feel disappointing to not get direct facetime with policymakers, there is opportunity to learn about the political realities of a situation in a meeting with staffers. They can help navigate the nitty-gritty, bureaucratic red tape that may seem impenetrable from the outside, but is their home-turf. They understand the appropriate approach and context needed for different types of messages. They are also more likely to follow-up with communications and keep the conversation flowing toward ultimate action. That being said, we must still do the work to make the science publicly relevant.

Dr. Lucy Jones delivered the closing plenary lecture of the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting  Image credit: Robb Cohen

Dr. Lucy Jones delivered the closing plenary lecture of the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting

Image credit: Robb Cohen

As Dr. Lucy Jones remarked in the closing lecture of the AAAS meeting, it is insufficient to bring science to the table, as we must go further to activate it. Activated science is relevant, it is understandable, and it is actionable. Simply explaining scientific information is not always what is needed at a given moment, especially if it doesn’t directly lead to realistic next steps.

Dr. Jones provided the example of an onlooker observing a pedestrian crossing a major highway. The observers’ words of caution, likely aren’t going to be, “Force is equal to the product of mass and acceleration!”, but rather, “You’re going to get hit by a car, get out of the way!” While both statements are factual and relevant, the former is not necessarily what the person in the middle of the freeway needs to hear at the moment. It is all too common for scientists to dump facts on policymakers, and neglect the translation that is necessary to affect the immediate situation.

Particularly when in conversation with policymakers, considering context is vital. It could have been the case that our pedestrian ventured onto the roadway to protect a child that had run out unseen just ahead. Now, the situation is a bit more complicated, and we would modify our response, perhaps to one that instead focuses on slowing down the traffic. Again, it is here that staffers are our allies, in their ability to offer us context that we might otherwise miss. Only once we are aware of the complex realities at play can we adequately prepare ourselves for conversations that will actually lead to change.

Accordingly, we must do the work to be efficient with our outreach efforts. Political scientist Dr. Liz Suhay from American University advised science communicators to first identify the goals of target policymakers, and find common ground to build a connection. A handshake and a face-to-face meeting to align mutual interests is a powerful way to humanize ideas and anchor a professional relationship.

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, listens to geologist John Stone at the Crary Science and Engineering Center in Antarctica.  Image credit: Mark Ralston via AP

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, listens to geologist John Stone at the Crary Science and Engineering Center in Antarctica.

Image credit: Mark Ralston via AP

It is easy to bemoan policymakers for ignoring our evidence in their decision-making process surrounding our issue, but it is much harder to recognize that the narrowness of our own interests can blind us to the political climate in which these decisions must be made. Within this system there are many avenues for scientists to offer their expertise, such as in the form of submitting policy briefs to politicians or serving on scientific advisory committees.

Thankfully, we are not alone in this endeavor. There is a slew of resources available to scientists who want to communicate their work and their interests in the political sphere. The School of Public Affairs from American University teamed up with the AAAS to devise a guide for science communicators to effectively interact with policymakers. There are also boundary organizations, such as the California Council on Science and Technology, which are independent bodies often turned to by political entities looking for objective scientific advice. These groups provide expert briefs that may advise (deliver information) or advocate (recommend policy), depending on the situation.

The most profound take-home message that was expressed nearly uniformly throughout the conference regarding the interface between science and policy was more basic than I imagined it would be. Policymakers are people too. They have countless relationships of their own with their constituents and fellow politicians to whom they are accountable. It’s important as scientists to cultivate connections for ourselves, and to establish a respectable rapport with the political world. Simply put, we must remember to talk with our legislative counterparts, and not talk at them.

Even when we maintain the best intentions of sharing our scientific expertise, we must stay humble and realize it is unlikely for every single decision go in our favor. This underscores the importance of continual reflection of our message and effective refinement of the approaches we use. As Dan Barry, the AAAS Director of Local and State Advocacy, reminded attendees, “science communication is a journey, not a destination.”