Tips for Science Advocates

Many of the 2008 high-energy physics laboratory users who advocated for basic science research investment in a trip to Washington D.C. in 2008.

I spent a number of years in the early 2000s participating in yearly science advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill. As part of a team of high-energy physicists who would visit the Hill for two days, walking from building to building to meet with Members of Congress, I learned a few useful things about being an advocate for Federal support for basic science research. Now that Donald Trump’s administration has laid out the blueprint for their thinking on Federal spending – a blueprint that largely cuts, cuts, and cuts more at science agencies (with the notable absence of any mention of the National Science Foundation) – perhaps you are thinking about being an advocate for basic science research investment. After all, spending must originate in the House of Representatives, not in the Executive Branch. That’s the requirement of the Constitution. The President can make recommendations, but the House has all the power to initiate spending legislation and together, the Senate and the House control all the powers of the budget. Advocating NOW to steer the budget process in the House and Senate is the positive way to affect the process. Perhaps these tips will help.

Go in Person, Or Call, or Fax; Email is a last resort

Congressional offices are very busy with angry constituents upset about the possibility of losing their healthcare. It’s very difficult to get through to those offices by phone. As a general rule of thumb, the best way to get your message to your Member of Congress is to visit in person. Your Members of Congress have offices in their district; Senators have offices peppered across your state. Try to make some time to go see them, or their staff, in person.

If you want to look up information about your Members of Congress, especially who they are and how to find them, you can use the following tool:

Now, if you cannot visit in person, the next best thing to do is call. However, this will require patience and persistence. First, you will likely have to navigate a menu (like calling your internet provider to get service). Stick with it! Write down the correct choices for next time . . . because there is a fair chance you are going to have your call dropped, get dumped into a voicemail, or merely have your call terminated for reasons unexplained to humankind.

If you get a busy signal, be persistent! Call back immediately. Try a barrage of calls. If that doesn’t work, put the phone down and come back later. Or, better, try a different number for a different office. If the district office is swamped, call the Washington D.C. office. Keep in mind there might be a timezone difference between you and the Washington office, and plan accordingly.

If you cannot get a phone call through, you can try faxing a letter. This is faster than mailing a letter; US Postal Service materials are screened for security purposes and can be delayed by days or weeks in getting to your Member’s office. A fax should go through instantly… if the line is not busy. And if you can find the fax number. Fax numbers are often guarded secrets of these offices. You might have to call and introduce yourself as a constituent to get the number. I recently tried to get through to my Senator, Ted Cruz’s, office just to get the fax number to send a thank-you letter. To this day, they have never returned any of my calls, voicemails, or emails.

The key thing, whatever you do, is try and try again. Some offices will be easy. Some will take a long effort.

Email is essentially useless. It’s easy to send and easy to ignore. A in-person visit, a phone call, or a hand-typed/hand-written letter count for much more in the weekly staff briefing than an easily and angrily fired-off email. Email should be your last act of desperation.

Stand for something, not against something

When you talk to a Member of Congress of their staff, be sure to focus on positive advocacy. If you say nothing good about, say, a science or education program, nobody remembers later why they are supposed to save it. You can write a very polished tirade against other things that threaten the science program you care about, and totally forget to say why anyone should want to support the science program in the first place. This is a trap you must avoid.

Related to this, don’t fall for the trap of being asked to advocate against another program to save one you like. That’s a rhetorical pitfall (e.g. it has, built into it, the presumption the budget cannot change in other ways to accommodate all needs, for instance by growing, etc.). Instead, stick to advocating for something. Meetings with Members of Congress or their staff are, really, conversations where both sides need to listen but also take care to respect each other’s roles.  If you are asked for advice about what to cut to save what you want, avoid the trap by simply replying, “Making the decisions about how to allocate the budget is a power and a responsibility granted to the Congress. I leave that to you. But please understand that here is why I think X is worth funding…” This lets you return to your advocacy without becoming prey to the pitfall. After all, making the hard decisions is why we elect representatives; it’s not our job to explain to them how to do theirs. But we can advocate for why they should act in defense of one thing or another.

Do not fall for the obvious trap built squarely into the current Presidential budget proposal: pitting defense against non-defense spending. The military didn’t ask for this $54 billion (see comments by, for instance, General Mattis about “If you cut the State Department you’re going to have to increase my ammunition budget.” [1]) The military leaders understand the value of diplomacy to prevent warfare, and also the value of having things worth defending in the U.S. This budget proposal is quite frankly an attempt to get the military and non-military advocates at each other’s throats. Focus instead on how agencies like State, Energy, etc. complement Defense.

Be a force FOR something, not against something.

Remember what science is

Science is a method for establishing reliable information. Governments should want the most reliable information to help make decisions, as should everyday people. Now, basic science is harder to defend, since it’s often about unapplied curiosity driven inquisition. Remind Members of Congress that such research facilitates breakthroughs unpredicted when the original research was undertaken. Benjamin Franklin, in trying to come to a deeper understanding of lightning and its relation to electricity, could not have predicted that this simple inquiry would lead to the electric engine and the acceleration of the industrial revolution. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of the laser in 1917, but he did not foresee how it would revolutionize telecommunications and data transmission that powers the modern information world, nor could he imagine that a laboratory (CERN) founded on the basic ideas behind the equation, E=mc2, would go one to develop the world wide web and offer it to the world for free, an act that built the platform for electronic commerce and modern tech company competition in the free market.

Basic science provides new knowledge, and having this knowledge makes America worth defending. Basic science is the light that attracts children to want to become scientists, and many of those same children will go on to eschew academic careers (which are limited in number) for industry careers in aerospace, data science, telecommunications… and some of them even invent companies that didn’t exist before. Science is a powerful lure to create the intellectual powers of the future that will drive an economy we cannot even yet conceive.

Give Congress, and the American people, the desire to want to keep the nation’s investment in basic science alive.

[1] “Retired generals cite past comments from Mattis while opposing Trump’s proposed foreign aid cuts”. Washington Post. Feb. 27, 2017.

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