Reflections on My Congressional Visits One Year Later

A year ago I participated in the BPS Science & Technology Congressional Visit Days.  I wanted to share a handful of simple, non-time-consuming things each of us (PIs, undergrad & grad students, postdocs, research staff) can do to advocate for continued support of medical and scientific research.  This effort is particularly critical in tough budgetary times such as these, so think of advocacy as apolitical PR for all of us.

*1. When in DC, head to Capitol Hill.*  Before your trip to DC (for fun and relaxation or for a conference in the area), schedule a meeting with your representative and senators and say that you want to discuss medical and scientific research support.  Prepare for your meeting and collect specific details about your state and district.  The Biophysical Society staff can help you with this.

Your institution may also have more specific information about the impact that the university and research has on the local and state economies that you can bring to your meeting as well.  You should have a very brief, bottom-line, big picture statement about who you are, what you do, what you are asking for, and why this is good for your district/state (e.g., innovation for now and for the future, educating the next generation, strong economy…).  Do not go off on political discussions or arguments.

This 10-15 minute meeting will very likely be with a staffer, who probably was not a science major, so be light on the details of your research.  It may be useful to give them handouts about funding trends and your business card.  Thank them for their time and invite them to visit your lab when they are in the area or to contact you whenever you can be of service.  Follow up your visit with an email again thanking them for taking the time to meet with you and invite them again.

When I visited my representative and senators, I found it to be very easy and not icky at all.  In fact it was fun and I enjoyed surreptitiously identifying politicians from the news.  Even if you do not agree with the majority of views held by your elected reps, it is still important that you can develop a relationship with them and their staffers.  The focus of your meeting should be in conveying your message in a simple, coherent and respectful manner and to not get bogged down in nitty gritty details about your research.

As an aside, your senators (and representatives?) may hold weekly meet-and-greets with their constituents, which is fun to catch as well.  Note that this session is not the appropriate time for your advocacy meeting.  You can also get passes for Congress gallery visits, the White House, National Archives, etc. and bypass the long lines.

2. Write to your representative and senators and encourage them to support medical and scientific funding, particularly in the spring as budget priorities are being established and before critical votes.  You can go to http://www.contactingthecongress.org/ and find the websites of your reps.  I’ve included an example email (hopefully not too lame) at the end of this lengthy post.  Many organizations have email templates you can use and modify.  Also you can sign up for legislative alerts from your favorite professional organization, like the Biophysical Society.

3. Theses are not just national issues, think local and state advocacy as well.*  Many of us are at state-supported institutions, so it is critical to advocate for continued state support.  Your institution may have a legislative network that you join (for example at the University of Minnesota, we have http://supporttheu.umn.edu/).

One simple way that we’ve been doing is to invite the mayor and state representatives and senators and our congressmen and senators to undergraduate and graduate research symposia.  We highlight the district (state or congressional) that the student presenters are from, so that these legislators recognize that “pointy-headed” research is not being carried out in some far-off location, but in their backyard by their constituents who vote.  Again, the point is to investing in developing relationships with these legislators so they too jump on the bandwagon and advocate for research and your institution.  Be sure to prepare your students (perhaps even by informing them who their reps actually ARE[!?] and why it is important to be proactive in reaching out to these folks.  Be sure to contact your legislators as far in advance as possible to ensure that your event gets scheduled on their calendars.  While you are at it, contact your institution’s chancellor, president, etc. to highlight the great work going on by your students.

4. Go really local and get involved in your neighborhood or (importantly) underserved schools and organizations.  Teach folks about how fun science is and that scientists are normal people too (for the most part!?!).  Teach them that research, even topics that might seem esoteric at the time, can have a profound impact on our society.  Don’t forget that you can apply for a BPS-sponsored science fair award (deadline in early December typically).

And invite groups to tour your lab and others.

****Remember that advocacy is a years-long process that is about developing and maintaining relationships, even with people with whom you may not agree with politically.*

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(Note: the first two paragraphs were taken from ResearchAmerica!)


Dear Senator/Representative xx,

As a concerned constituent and voter, I write to urge you to protect funding for medical research in FY 2013. Agencies like NIH, CDC, FDA, AHRQ and NSF are imperative to improving our health, powering our economy, and controlling the cost of healthcare.

Difficult decisions will have to be made, but Americans are highly supportive of federally-funded medical research that leads to life-saving cures and treatments. Please treat medical research as a top funding priority for FY 2013.

Our laboratory at the University of Minnesota Duluth and College of Pharmacy is currently funded by the NIH Institute of Aging and the National Science Foundation. We develop and apply cutting edge optics and microscopy

to understand how molecules interact in the allergic response. This research has biosensor applications in biotechnology, and we are applying our research to investigate other immune cell signaling that can be used to

understand aging and cancer. With our research grants for which we are very thankful to receive, we have trained ~30 undergraduate, graduate and professional students and research professionals in our laboratory. These

students represent our future by training the next generation of innovators who will grow our economy. Further these students and research professionals directly contribute to the local Duluth MN economy, and we

too strive to purchase local, Minnesota and US-produced goods whenever possible.

In short, I would encourage you to support medical and scientific research in FY2013. If we do not support this effort, we will be shortchanging our future, and I would hate to shut down my laboratory because we lose funding.

Thank you very much for your consideration.

Erin D. Sheets
University of Minnesota

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One thought on “Reflections on My Congressional Visits One Year Later

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