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|Building Relationships with State Legislators as an Early Career Scientist|
There is no doubt America is divided on some issues, but bridges can be built through listening and storytelling with the goal of executing effective change. I joined Project Bridge Colorado to represent University of Colorado Boulder and think of creative ways for scientists to communicate their research to the public, including state legislators. One of Project Bridge Colorado’s first big ideas was to organize a poster session called “Capitol Investment: The Impact of Research Science in Colorado,” which was held at the Colorado State Capitol on January 19, 2018. Our goal was to give postdoctoral scholars the opportunity to convey their research and its broader impacts in a lay-friendly manner directly to CO state legislators and aides.
Turning frustration into action
After the 2016 elections, I felt frustrated, confused, and nervous about how my country had become so remarkably divided. I quickly grew weary of “slacktivism” on social media, with friends sharing their opinions with each other, but rarely sharing with the elected officials who needed to get the message. Something needed to change.
I felt compelled to use my skills as a scientist to bridge our political divides. Scientists are uniquely suited to rationally think through problems and use concrete evidence to make challenging decisions. For these reasons and others, there are record numbers of scientists running for political office in 2018, and that trend is likely to continue. However, I didn’t have a forum to channel my newfound passion.
Fortuitously, as I wrapped up my term as president of the Postdoctoral Association of Colorado, I met Erin Golden, PhD, the founder and current president of Project Bridge Colorado, the second chapter of a science outreach and advocacy organization originally established at Johns Hopkins University. We believe interactions between early career scientists and state legislators may have long-term impacts on boosting the public interest in science. Organizing the “Capitol Investment: The Impact of Research Science in Colorado” was a natural consequence of our shared convictions.
An initial event with lasting impact
Our event was bipartisan - we sought to communicate the importance of our research to legislators and how it impacts our CO communities and beyond. Legislators learned about the research being conducted in the state and how it impacts their constituents. State legislators often move on to elected positions in the federal government. Therefore, presenting our research in an accessible manner to our state legislators may positively impact future federal funding decisions in the sciences.
Importantly, postdoctoral scholars had to learn how to tell a story about the big picture of their research. We provided workshops prior to the event to train our participants on how to communicate their science to legislators. Our team peer-reviewed every abstract and poster before printing to ensure the scientific content was accessible for college-educated adults with little to no science background. This approach led to clean posters that conveyed the science in a concise, digestible manner, thus allowing postdoctoral scholars to tell an engaging story while building trust in their research.
We engaged CU’s Office of Government Relations to facilitate our event from the legislative side. With their help, we secured the endorsements of 71/100 of our state legislators, who served as co-hosts for our event. Attendance from our legislators on the actual day ebbed and flowed, and our participants were enthusiastic about presenting their research and the networking opportunities. To commemorate our hard work, Governor John Hickenlooper proclaimed January 19, 2018 as “Early Career Scientist Day” in Colorado – giving our postdoctoral community well-deserved acknowledgment and celebration.
We had a very successful initial event and in the next event we hope to increase attendance even further by having our postdoctoral presenters contact their legislators ahead of time, and place specific emphasis on the use of social media to share live content with constituents. We also plan to send written invitations to legislators and aides asking for their RSVP, and organize our poster presenters into districts to guide legislators to their specific constituents.
I urge early career scientists to pursue opportunities to interact with your state legislators and advocate for evidence-based policy. Please feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in organizing your own Capitol Poster Day or starting your own Project Bridge chapter at a local or state level. Digital abstracts from the Capitol Poster Day and information about our upcoming events can be found on our Project Bridge Colorado website.
Brian A. Aguado, PhD, is a NIH and Burroughs Wellcome Fund postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder and the institution relations chair for Project Bridge Colorado.