When I first started learning about science advocacy, I imagined Neil deGrasse Tyson getting loud about how science builds society. But how do the rest of us communicate our opinions when we feel like we can’t shout farther than the lab down the hall?
Good news: your voice is louder than you think. You don’t need to be Jane Goodall to convince people that science matters. And you definitely don’t need to go on late-night TV or have thousands of Twitter followers to in order to be heard. You just need to talk to the right people: your state and federal representatives.
One easy place to start is a topic close to your heart (or maybe your wallet): education and research funding. Most research funding flows from the federal budget, which is shaped by your Representative and two Senators. The White House submits a budget request to the House of Representatives, but that request is often treated as a glorified suggestion: the real power rests with Congress. The House drafts the budget in multiple bills, divided broadly by policy area. Most of these bills outline funding for multiple scientific agencies, among other things – for example, the same bill usually funds the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Another bill wraps up the NIH budget with funding for the Departments of Education and Labor. Then the House and the Senate amend and vote on each bill.
Weeks to months of negotiation sculpt those bills into something both political parties can agree on, which is no smooth process. Appropriations bills get drafted in the spring, debated over the summer, and have to be passed by September 30th, the end of the federal fiscal year. (Track the progress of research and development bills here.) Even if our Representative or Senators aren’t drafting the initial budget bills, they can introduce amendments during debate or withhold their vote until the budget meets the needs of their constituents.
That means we, as constituents, have power – we can ask our representatives to take direct action and stand up for science by amending budget bills before they agree to vote. Exercising that power doesn’t take much time. Call and leave a voicemail at your Senator’s office while walking across campus. Submit a one-paragraph comment through the form on your Representative’s website before seminar.
You can even go old school. Cut up some thick paper, dig out a stamp from that desk drawer, and write a postcard. (Check out the end of the post for .pdf files containing postcard templates.) Postcards get your point across, and get delivered quickly since they don’t have to go through the tight security screening that slows delivery of traditional letters. Plus, a postcard stamp is 35 cents.
Your representative (well, their office) tallies each call, email, and postcard, which influences how they debate and how they vote – especially the tally of phone calls. Add your opinion to the pile and make sure it gets counted too.
Here’s how to get started:
- Show that you’re a constituent when you call or write: include your zip code. You can also mention your university, though you might want to include the caveat that you’re representing yourself and not the university as a whole. Representatives need to know that they answer to you – and, maybe more importantly, to your vote. Leaving a voicemail for the Speaker of the House might be cathartic, but unless you live in their district it won’t advance your push for science funding or policy. Direct your advocacy towards your own representatives.
- Make a clear and concise request, either at the beginning of your message, the end, or both – an “ask”. For example, you can ask the representative to fund a particular project or agency; introduce a bill; co-sponsor a bill; vote for or against a bill; or make a public statement.
- Got lots to talk about? Excellent. Make multiple phone calls or write multiple postcards, with one issue or story each.
- Some prompts to get started advocating for federal science funding:
- If you work in a federal lab or a lab funded in part by federal grants, what do you work on? Why is it important? Think of this as a “tweet your thesis” challenge – make it quick and engaging.
- What are you most excited about in science in general – not just your project, but on the broadest scales? What agency funds that kind of work?
- How does current research drive a particular public good that you care about? Why is that public good important to you?
If you want more info about research funding, take advantage the AAAS’s research and development policy hub to learn more about the budget process, the final 2018 research budget, and the progress of the 2019 budget through Congress. Summer is the perfect time to get involved: as of early June 2018, a few appropriations bills are under consideration in committee while others are still being drafted. Push for science funding while your representatives can amend the budget. And push again in September, as the budget debate often comes right down to the end-of-fiscal-year wire.
Though the budget nitty-gritty is interesting, you don’t need to absorb it all to let your representatives know your opinions – you can get started now, with your experiences and convictions and ideas. Those are enough. As stated by my favorite fictional President (Josiah Bartlet, of course), “Decisions are made by those who show up.” We can’t wait for other scientists to show up in our names; just like the most puzzling research projects, we have to do it ourselves.
The idea that finally got me to show up wasn’t from a fictional President; it was from two real ones, separated by over a hundred years. In a 2016 speech, Barack Obama said “Democracy is not a spectator sport” and encouraged the country to get in the arena. He was referring to a 1910 speech by Teddy Roosevelt, who said “It is not the critic who counts… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly.”
Leaving the stands goes beyond voting (though you should vote: midterm elections are on November 6th, 2018!). It means ensuring your representatives do what you elected them to do. When I get frustrated by Congress, I think “democracy is not a spectator sport”. A step into the arena is only a phone call or a postcard away.
By Bridget Menasche
When you’re ready to be heard, here’s the local and DC contact info for Colorado Senators and for the House Representative for Boulder, which is in CO-2. (Otherwise, you can use your zip code to look up your Representative.)
Senator Michael Bennet
Democrat, first appointed 2009, re-elected 2010 and 2016, up for re-election in 2022
Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Building
1244 Speer Blvd
Denver, CO 80204
Washington, D.C. Office
261 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Senator Cory Gardner
Republican, first elected 2014, up for re-election in 2020
721 19th Street, Suite 150
Denver, CO 80202
Phone: (303) 391-5777
Washington, D.C. Office
354 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Phone: (202) 224-5941
Representative Jared Polis (CO-2)
Democrat, first elected 2008, re-elected every two years, running for Colorado Governor in 2018
1644 Walnut St.
Boulder, CO 80302
Phone: (303) 484-9596
Washington, D.C. Office
1727 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-2161
Some postcard pdfs to print: