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How to Engage with policymakers as a scientist

David Combs standing at the front of the lecture hall presenting his sldies

MSU SciComm held its fifth of six science policy lunches today. David Combs, the Midwest Outreach Coordinator for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, led today’s session. David laid out a series of questions to drive his presentation, so to describe the key takeaways from his presentation, let’s do the same.

Why should I engage with policymakers as a scientist?

Great question! As a scientist, you have unique expertise in a subject area and have likely done research that can inform your perspective. As a scientist, you are one of the most trusted groups in America according to a recent Pew Survey. That means you have a unique credibility and legitimacy to your point of view. In addition, you likely have additional credibility based on the college or university you are at.

How do I engage with a policymaker?

Engagement with politicians is usually done directly or indirectly. Engaging directly with policymakers can mean meeting with them and their staff, writing policy briefs that summarize the research on a topic and why some type of policy needs to be enacted, or testifying.

Engaging indirectly often means working with members on your community to get the word out about the issue. This can be through media reporting, writing op-eds about the issue, or holding public discussions. If you are a student and part of a campus organization, hosting a public discussion about an issue can be a great way to get involved in the community. As a scientist specifically, engaging indirectly can also mean doing research relevant to the issue.

Okay, I’ve decided I want to engage directly with policymakers. Who do I talk to?

Who you will want to talk to depends on what type of policy you are interested in. Suppose you are interested in nuclear weapons policy, which happens to be David’s area of focus. You would want to talk to someone in the federal government, probably a congressperson. You can either talk to your representatives or someone on the relevant committee. Here, nuclear weapons policy would likely fall under the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Armed Services.

When meeting a representative at the federal or state level, don’t be surprised if you don’t actually meet with them but instead, meet with a staffer from their office. Representatives can only be in one place at a time and hence, staffers handle the meetings and relay your concerns to their boss.

What do I say when I actually meet with someone?

The key idea to remember is that the person you are meeting is likely not an expert on the topic you want to discuss and has a limited amount of time. Therefore, you need to get to the point and use non-technical language. Make sure to communicate why you came to talk and what you are hoping to happen (your “ask”). When discussing science, explain what the research says and more importantly, why it matters.

What if I get a vague or non-committal response?

Follow up! Many politicians aren’t going to give you a straight answer. Push for them to either agree to act on the issue or not. If they provide a response like “I’ll take what you’ve said into consideration,” make sure to get a commitment for a follow-up. That could be a later meeting or a message telling you their decision on whether to act on the issue.

This all sounds great, but I’m not an expert in the area I would want to advocate for.

That’s okay! While speaking as an expert on the topic is important, speaking about a topic you are not an expert on can be just as valuable. For a policymaker to take action, they often want to see broad support for the issue. That means as a scientist who is not an expert on the topic, you are showing there is broader support from the scientific community. Depending on the issue, you may even be able to provide an additional perspective to help sway the policymaker’s decision.

One final question: what if the policymakers I can get in contact with can’t make an impact on the issues I care about?

Even if the policymaker can’t directly impact the issue you care about, it is still worthwhile to talk with them. They may know of someone who does have the ability to act on the issue.

If you cannot contact someone at the level of policy making you desire, starting small can be useful. For example, if you are interested in nuclear weapons policy, you need to talk with someone at the federal level. But what if you can only talk with a local councilperson? One thing you could try to do is get a resolution passed that calls on the federal government to take action on nuclear weapons. While the resolution has no legal power, multiple local governments passing resolutions will get the attention of state and federal officials who then can take action.

Wait! I have one more question! What if I want to learn more?

If you would like to learn more, please RSVP on our event page for the next MSU SciComm policy lunch on November 21st which will cover testifying for science. Also, check out the Union of Concerned Scientists’ science advocacy toolkit.

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