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Advocacy in Action: Working with the ASPET Washington Fellows Program
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Stephanie Davis and Jared Tur

 

ASPET capitol building logo

The ASPET Washington Fellows Program enables developing and early career scientists interested in science policy to learn about and become more engaged in public policy issues.

The Role of a Washington Fellow

Participation in the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) Washington Fellows program allows trainee scientists to see that any graduate student or postdoctoral scholar can be an advocate for science. Although some participants in this program have previous advocacy experience, it is designed to familiarize graduate students and postdocs with the policy-making process.

 

Fellowships and internships focused on promoting advocacy and policy knowledge are available to among graduate students and postdocs in numerous scientific societies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies. However, the Washington Fellows program is designed for students and postdoctoral scholars to discuss legislative issues related to pharmacology research with legislators.

 

Through the Washington Fellows program, research trainees initiate meetings (usually three to six meetings) with elected officials on Capitol Hill. Fellows are encouraged to maximize the number of meetings during their Hill visit. They are also advised to schedule meetings with officials that represent their home state/district and state of residence, since federal lawmakers are more likely to dedicate time to meet with their constituents.

 

Visiting Capitol Hill

Before each Hill visit, fellows are briefed via conference call on how to schedule congressional meetings by Tyler Lamb, the director of government affairs for ASPET. Immediately before their congressional visits, fellows meet with Lamb to go over the legislative issues they will be discussing during the meeting. Although Lamb accompanies fellows to each meeting, he encourages them to lead the discussion on the key issues.

 

At their meetings with legislators, fellows are encouraged to share their research expertise using non-technical language. Although this aspect of the meetings may be challenging for some, the ability to explain real-world applications of scientific research is a highly-valued communication skill. According to Sterling Glass, a 2018 fellow, interactions between fellows and legislators provide “a unique opportunity for young scientists to expand their horizons beyond the lab and academic events.” Upon returning from Washington DC, fellows participate in a final conference call to discuss the outcomes of their visit and propose an editorial topic to publish in the venue of their choice. Fellows are encouraged to maintain relationships with legislative staff members and plan future visits to congressional offices in their home district.

 

Although meeting with legislators on Capitol Hill provides an incredible opportunity for trainees in the Washington Fellows program, tools such as social media allow graduate students and postdocs to engage with the public and become advocates for science. According to the results of a 2014 survey from AAAS, nearly all scientists admit to talking with their fellow citizens about science on a regular basis.

 

Transferable Skills Gained from the Hill

Although graduate students and postdoctoral scholars might be hesitant to meet one-on-one with lawmakers, the Washington Fellows Program is an exceptional learning experience that allows early career scientists to enhance their transferable skills. Scientists are often told to remain up-to-date on the latest published findings, and this skill is essential when meeting with legislators on the Hill. The status of relevant pieces of legislation is continuously changing, meaning that the issues broached by fellows visiting in mid-April are often entirely different from the critical issues discussed in early June. For example, in the 2018 class, the FY 2019 Budget Resolution remained a constant topic, but staying informed of recent changes in the Resolution was crucial for fellows. Fortunately, fellows were briefed on the current legislative situation before each meeting.

 

Scientists are taught to keep an open mind and flexible attitude in research since there is always the possibility that a main hypothesis is proven wrong, or a manuscript is delayed due to skeptical peer reviewers. Likewise, the overall outcome and productivity of any particular congressional meeting is often difficult to predict, since some legislative staff members might be more receptive to our message than others.

 

To ensure a productive meeting, fellows were advised to find common ground with congressional staffers before broaching the issues. Making this connection at each meeting allowed for productive dialogue and learning opportunities on both sides, rather than a hostile exchange. Even when fellows find themselves at odds with the political views of their elected officials, an open mind and a desire to teach allows scientists to find allies on both sides of the aisle.

 

Finally, participating in a legislative meeting not only provides fellows with a snapshot of life on Capitol Hill, but also gives them the opportunity to strengthen their written and oral communication skills. According to Abigail A. Walton, PhD, the director of the Center for Academic Innovation at Antioch University, the lack of communication between scientists and lawmakers “is the number one barrier to effective science communication.” Participating in legislative meetings and publishing an op-ed allow fellows to overcome this barrier by teaching legislators and the public about their research.

 

Bar plot of AAAS Members public engagement activities

The percentage of AAAS Members engaging in various public engagement activities. Source: Pew Research Center.

Since the technical knowledge and scientific expertise of congressional staff member is difficult to predict, fellows are advised to use non-technical language while explaining their research and emphasize the societal benefits of their expertise. The ability to highlight the importance of one's research to individuals of varying scientific backgrounds is a crucial skill when applying for grants from government institutions, wherein researchers must convince their peers that their project is deserving of federal funding. Furthermore, strong written and oral communication skills are required for scientific careers of all genres.

 

Advocacy is for Everyone

Although meeting with legislators on Capitol Hill provides an incredible opportunity for trainees in the Washington Fellows program, tools such as social media allow graduate students and postdocs to engage with the public and become advocates for science. According to the results of a 2014 survey from AAAS, nearly all scientists admit to talking with their fellow citizens about science on a regular basis.

 

The percentage of scientists regularly involved with public engagement is increasing as younger scientists enter the field. With this fact in mind, this younger generation of scientists should have no problems engaging with a specific subset of citizens - that is, individuals tasked with writing and passing new laws.

 

For more information on how to successfully advocate for research funding, please visit A Postdoc’s Guide to Advocacy on the NPA website.

 

Stephanie Davis, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Kentucky, the current chair of the ASPET young scientists committee, and a board member for Future of Research. Jared Tur, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of South Florida. They are both active members of the NPA Advocacy Committee.

 

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