What it’s like to lobby for science

The fact that consistent funding for biomedical research has decreased over the years is known to everyone who works in basic science. Indeed, it is a reason for many to leave the field altogether and explore other options.  I wondered if there was something I could actively do to understand how funding at a federal level works and lobby for science funding. This led me to the 2015 SfN Early Career Policy Fellowship, which I applied for. Much to my delight, my application was accepted. The fellowship is unique in that over the year-long period, the Society for Neuroscience pairs the fellows with mentors – these may be scientists who were the recipients of the fellowship in years past, or much more advanced and experienced advocates. Anyone can request a meeting with your elected representative. As a voting constituent, it is your right!

Although it sounds intimidating, the meetings we had were quite pleasant. We mostly met with staffers, who ran the gamut in terms of their experience and knowledge on science-related matters. Either way, talking to someone on the Hill is a lot like talking to an educated friend in another profession.  The interest and background of the staffer helped us focus our pitch better. Usually, we’d sit around a table and go through introductions. Since we were a group of 4 to 5, we divided the ‘asks’ amongst ourselves beforehand to avoid awkward pauses. Going through the ‘asks’ generally led to questions. Overall, the officials were very receptive and said they’d transfer our messages to the appropriate official. A few of them had questions or were interested in visiting a lab and we offered help in doing so. A question that often comes up (and would be nice to have some answer to) is the economic impact of your ‘asks’. How many people will it provide jobs to? What is the impact of the disease in terms of quality of life, caregiver hours and medical care? In the long run, how will your ‘ask’ save federal / state money?

I found my Capitol Hill Day visits quite empowering. It gave me an idea of the incredibly complicated decisions elected representatives have to make especially when they encounter numerous lobbyists on a daily basis. It makes one think of the best way to communicate one’s science to an elected representative or a staffer (in 60 seconds or less!). After attending two Capitol Hill days, here are a few pointers –

  • Research beforehand the people you are going to meet. Join their mailing lists to come up with talking points. Practice vignettes so you have them ready. For example, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has an interest in autism; while talking to her staffer, I was able to talk about the link between autism and epilepsy and how much more we still need to know. Congressman Leonard Lance of NJ has a caucus on rare diseases. As seizures can be present in these diseases, this gave me a unique talking point with him as well.  
  • Be ready with your elevator speech- this short spiel should tell the staffer / elected official your name, your institution (which hopefully is his or her constituency) and the area of work you are involved in. Avoid jargon and prepare for this by talking to your parents, your neighbors, your non-scientist friends, everyone! People love stories! Make your story as personal as possible.
  • Prepare your ‘asks’ – these are concrete, actionable steps you are requesting the elected official to take. It could be supporting an increase in NIH and NSF funding or it could be requesting them to join a certain Congressional Caucus. This is a time when you can invite them to your lab to see how the research money is put to use.
  • Chances are you’ll meet the staffer and not necessarily the elected official. Staffers are young and extremely bright (and overworked) individuals and many have advanced degrees themselves. Offer yourselves as a resource to them! Keep business cards handy!
  • The Hill Day meetings are a lot of fun. It’s very rare that you’ll meet with someone combative or rude. After all, healthcare is a major concern, no matter who you are. You might get some skepticism e.g. one of the staffers asked us what other cause he should reduce funding to in order to ensure funding for the NIH and NSF. The best thing to tell them is that you’re not trained in making these decisions and that you’re there to tell your story.
  • Most importantly, have a good time! This is a unique opportunity to interact with people who have a big influence on science funding. It’s best to go without any preconceived notions and make the most of your visits.

Contributed by Dr. Sloka Iyengar,  an Epilepsy Researcher and Science Writer

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