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Scientists Influencing Washington: Making Our Voices Heard

by Laurie A. Fathe

How often have we all said, "I'm just one person; what I say doesn't matter"? After spending a year in a Congressional office, I know this is simply not true.

Wielding influence in the political world - the world that allocates funding for science and provides support for equity for historically excluded groups - is a skill that all scientists should learn. A host of gains that benefit scientists, such as the formation of the National Science Foundation, continued funding of fundamental research, and increasing recognition of the need for better science education would not have been realized without people making their voices heard in the most powerful offices in the land. Unfortunately, influencing people is not a skill we are taught as scientists. Instead, we are taught that truth will reveal itself if we dig deeply and cleverly enough, and we are assured that once this truth is recognized, it will join all those other truths that stand as scientific knowledge. We exert influence by the truth of our assertions.

But most of the world does not operate this way. The majority of issues which require decisions are not black and white, and have no such truth associated with them. There is only a relative value, a point of view, or the coercive power of a proponent. Decisions are made on cost-benefit analysis, and no one has an exclusive right to define cost and benefit; it all depends upon your point of view.

What follows is a practical guide to communicating with the people who make the decisions: Congress, your state legislature, or federal agencies. There are many reasons to do so. These people may, in fact, be very concerned about the issue that concerns you, but they may not have time to investigate it. Or they may not be aware that the issue exists, but would be concerned if they knew. Or they may not understand why the issue should be important to them. You can provide the background, the specifics, or the motivation to become involved.

Providing information is simple. Remember that your legislator is knowledgeable, but probably not a scientist. You must communicate at a level that the general public could comprehend. For not only must you make your position known to your Congressperson, she must then be able to defend it to other representatives and his or her constituency.

Getting Started

  1. Make an initial contact with the office of the Congressperson with whom you wish to communicate, either by phone or by mail. Introduce yourself, using your professional title and the fact that you are a voting constituent, if appropriate. Raise the issue you are concerned about and ask for support for your position.
  2. If you get a supportive response, request some specific action: a vote on a piece of legislation, supporting a bill in process, a statement to the media, or an appearance at a professional meeting. If you are told that such things have already been done, ask the office to send you all the pertinent information so you can publicize it within your own professional circles. Then thank the person for the support.
  3. If the response is negative, try to determine what motivated this stance. At this point, you will want to be in phone contact with the office, building a working relationship with the staffer who deals with the issue. Once you have done your advance work, request a meeting with the representative and your contact staff person. Don't be disappointed if you meet only with the staff person; they are the representative's eyes and ears.

Orchestrating an Effective Meeting

  1. Do your homework. Know your issue thoroughly, and discover as much as you can about your representative's position.
  2. Be prompt and brief. A representative has an insanely busy schedule, and many staffers routinely put in 60 hours a week. You will enhance your position if you develop a five-minute presentation and a one-page fact sheet. Bring along more detailed supporting material, but be ready to make your case in a minimum of words.
  3. Listen as well as talk. Often the person you are meeting with will give you clues about his or her concerns. Listen attentively, take notes, and formulate your response after the meeting.
  4. Follow up after the meeting with two letters: one to the representative (even if not present at the meeting) and one to the staff person. Thank them for their time and restate your position. If the office is supportive, thank them and express your hope for continued backing on the issue. If not, try reframing your argument in light of what you learned at the meeting.

Maintaining a Relationship

  1. Whether or not you received support for a particular issue, you now have a contact in a Congressional office where you can have influence. Keep the staff person informed about the original issue as it changes, or as new information becomes available, as well as when new issues arise.
  2. If your Congressperson is on a committee that deals with relevant issues, try to keep informed on the committee's work.
  3. Send your Congressperson and staff contact a resume along with an offer to testify at hearings, if you are comfortable doing so. There is always a need for informed voices in Washington, and every Congressperson likes to have someone from home on stage.

Remember that merely writing a letter is a powerful act. The standard assumption in Washington is that for every person who writes a letter on an issue, there are 100 people who are concerned but will not write. Thus, a single letter has an impact but 10 letters from constituents signals a ground swell of concern. This is where local and national professional organizations can be very effective. Use your organizational and professional ties as leverage. If you can show that you represent the APS or another organization, and then cite the number of members who reside in a particular Congressional district, you have just multiplied your influence.

Finally, as the commercial says: just do it! Whether you write, call, schedule a meeting, or send an email is not as important as the fact that you have given input to the policy process. If you do that much, you have made an important contribution.

The world of science, exemplified by the lone researcher in his or her lab, removed from the world, is long gone, if it ever was anything more than a fantasy. Some may mourn the passing of this world, and the need to master new skills to survive in today's climate. But if learning to lobby is the price we must pay for progress, it is a small cost for the phenomenal gains we can realize. There will always be a need to change, to progress, to grow, and overcoming the inertia of the entrenched system requires concerted effort. But progress most often comes not in the form of revolution, but evolution, with small, seemingly insignificant steps adding up to a concrete whole. Each small step you take moves us all forward. One person can make a difference, and that person can be you.

Laurie Fathe, the 1993 APS Congressional Fellow, is an assistant professor of physics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California.

Editor's Note: A longer version of this article was originally published in the Winter 1994 issue of the Gazette, a newsletter of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP).

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin