Advocating for Science: Planning your advocacy

Updated: Oct 22, 2019

MSU SciComm held its fourth of six science policy lunches today. Jessica Thomas, the senior outreach coordinator for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, led today’s session on advocating for science. Advocating for science is more than just talking science; it is a planned series of actions working towards a scientific cause. In her talk, Ms.Thomas laid out four ideas for planning science advocacy efforts.

The Ask and The Target

The ask and the target can be thought of as the what and the who. When advocating for science, the first step is to decide what the goal of your advocacy is and where that goal can be achieved. For example, pollutants in drinking water has been a national issue since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. If a scientist wanted to advocate for regulating pollutants in drinking water, they would first decide which level of government, such as federal, state, or local, would be most likely to respond to their advocacy. Once a level of government has been decided, the next step is to identify the person or agency (“the target”) who would be able to make the change. If the scientist decided to advocate at the federal level, they may decide to contact one of their representatives on the House Natural Resources Committee or comment on a rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Crafting the Story

Once the relevant people or agencies have been identified, the next step is crafting the message. Providing scientific data isn’t a story in itself; there needs to be context to that data. When creating the story, make sure to establish the legitimacy and credibility of the issue, focus on constituent beliefs, and show the level of public support for your position. Most importantly, the stakes should be clear: why should people care about the issue you are advocating for? Returning to the water pollution example, think about what would happen if nothing were done about water pollution.

When showing public support focus on both individuals and prior rules and laws. For example, one can look for support among other scientists invested in the issue. Alternatively, one can look at policies already in place at one level of government but not at the one you are advocating. For example, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy is in the process of rule-making that would limit certain amounts of PFAS compounds (man-made chemicals that don’t break down and hence accumulate in the environment) in Michigan drinking water. Noting that Michigan is one of several states that have rules or are in the process of making rules adds legitimacy to the issue and shows that there would be support for a rule or law at the federal level.

Twitterfy the Story

Picture showing how to communicate science to scientist and to the public. For scientists, go from background to results, for the public, go from the main point to the details.

As scientists, we communicate our work and its significance in long journal articles split into predictable sections: the motivation, the methods, the results, and the conclusion and larger context. When advocating for science, the sections need to be reversed. Begin by focusing on the main point (the “conclusion”) and why it matters (the “larger context”) and then add in supporting details as you go. In terms of drinking water pollution, the scientist would first start by saying that PFAS is increasingly being detected in drinking water (the main point) and that long term exposure to even small amounts of these compounds can be dangerous to human health (why it matters). The scientist can then go into specific details about the harmful effects and what could be done to eliminate PFAS from the water supply.

Timing and Methods Matter

At any given time, there are many issues competing for the spotlight, so your issue needs to stand out. When advocating for an issue, pick a time of year when the issue is most relevant. That could be based on election cycles, legislative calendars, when the impacts are most visible, or when an anniversary or landmark event occurs. For drinking water pollution, an ideal time would be in early January since January 5th, 2016 was when former Michigan governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in regard to the Flint water crisis and January 16th, 2016 was when former president Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint.

Finally, the last step is actually deciding where to do the advocacy. Typically, the issue first needs to be brought into the public eye, which can be accomplished by writing letters or op-eds in mainstream publications such as newspapers and magazines or holding press conferences. Next, the issue needs to stay in the public conversation by holding town halls, public meetings, field visits, or hearings. By keeping the issue in the public conversation, it is easier to move to the next step of demonstrating public support. This can be accomplished through demonstrations, petitions, or visits with legislators. When visiting with legislators or other lawmakers, building a relationship is key. This can include multiple meetings, invitations to events relevant to the issue, and public recognition and thanks for taking a stance on the issue or proposing legislation.

For any scientist interested in getting started with science advocacy, Ms. Thomas recommended the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science Advocacy Toolkit.

The next MSU SciComm policy lunch will be on November 7th at 12pm in room 3540 of the Engineering building and will focus on engaging policy makers as a scientist. If you are interested in attending, please RSVP on our events page.

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