Can Scientists Be Good Policy Advocates?

Sept. 9, 2021

At first, the word "advocacy" may seem off-putting. Some might associate the term with partisanship and protest, with intense calls to action based more on political, social or emotional outcomes rather than scientific advancement.

However, there is a difference between advocacy and other activities classified as lobbying or activism. One can base their advocacy on scientific fact, and produce results not only beneficial for individual research but for the field as a whole. ASM advocates rely on rigorous research and data to serve as the basis to support or defend evidence-based policies, analyze current practices and make recommendations for the future.

ASM’s policy team joined Public and Scientific Affairs Committee (PSAC) Chair Dr. Stacey Schultz-Cherry and former Hill Day participants at World Microbe Forum to address some of the myths surrounding legislative advocacy that may deter scientists from engaging in it.

Myth: Scientists and Politics Don’t Mix

Science and policy inform each other, according to Dr. Chuck Rice, a professor of soil microbiology at Kansas State University and member of ASM’s Public and Scientific Affairs Committee (PSAC). He asserts that as citizens, scientists are indeed constituents and stakeholders in the political process, and their scientific work is largely dictated by the federal funding and research agenda set by Congress. Meanwhile, it is up to scientists to provide reliable information so Congress can make decisions. "If  [policymakers] don’t hear from the science community, then they’re going to get their information on perceived science needs from other sources," he said.

Those in Congress agree. In fact, a survey of congressional and federal staffers found 80% of respondents consider trade and professional associations like ASM trusted sources of political information.

"I think all of our public policy should be based on science," Rep. Diana DeGette told ASM. "I think that should not be a radical view. The people who are the very best to explain that to their elected officials are scientists."

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO-1) shares her perspective on the need for evidence-based policy and the role of scientists.

Myth: Participating in Advocacy Will Detract From My Scientific Work

"I was of the viewpoint that the best way to do science was to be doing my research in the lab," said Edna Chiang, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who participated in ASM’s Hill Day in 2020. When the government shutdown affected her project’s federal funding and halted her work, the relationship to policy became clear. The shutdown motivated many young scientists, including Chiang, to learn more about the legislative process.

"Even though science begins in the lab… it has to reach the public and the policymakers at the end of the day," said Ipshita Upadhyay, a graduate student at University of Illinois, Urbana – Champaign. Upadhyay realized the importance of advocacy, particularly the importance of vaccination, during her undergraduate work in bucolic villages in India. “It is our responsibility to share the responsibility of nurses, doctors and other public health workers by spreading the message,” she said.

Myth: I Don’t Think I’m Qualified Enough at My Career Level to Be Considered an "Expert"

“Don’t underestimate the value of your experiences and your perspective as a scientist regardless of where you are in your career stage,” said Chiang. Most legislative staff have strong political expertise but little to no scientific background. From their perspective, to them, you are the expert, even on topics as basic as how the scientific process works, she points out. Moreover, one must consider that by the nature of ongoing research, there will always be new discoveries to be made and lessons to learn. The true value of participating in advocacy is to put a face to science and humanize it for legislators,  she explained.

Myth: I Don’t Have the Support of My Institution

"While private, academic, state and federal institutions all have different policies for advocacy engagement, they are generally supportive of such activities," said  ASM Chief Advocacy Officer Allen Segal. "If you have any concerns, you should check with your administration. With very rare exceptions (which we can help you navigate), there are no prohibitions on advocacy around public policy, especially when it is on your personal time and does not involve election-related activities."

Myth: I Don’t Have the Time to Participate in Advocacy

"As a graduate student, one of the biggest myths I held about advocacy was that I wouldn’t have time," said Upadhyay. "I realized that my lab gives me enough space to think beyond our research and find solutions to what we encounter in the lab."

Chiang shares the sentiment and her strategy: to use small breaks during her day to take advantage of small but important opportunities, such as signing on to an action alert while waiting for data to upload. "If activities are broken down into the actual time they take, it’s much easier to work them into your day," she suggested.

Myth: I Won’t Make a Difference

ASM’s membership includes over 30,000 people representing 26 disciplines, and those voices together have a big impact. The public looks to scientific experts like those in the microbial sciences community to speak up on critical science, health and environmental issues. They need  scientific voices to be heard.

Nine out of 10 U.S. adults agree it’s important for the U.S. to be a global leader in research to improve health, according to a public opinion survey commissioned by Research!America and the ASM in 2018. Building personal connections and trust with local Congress people are among the most effective means of advocacy, according to the nonpartisan Public Affairs Council:

  • When asked to compare the effectiveness of different advocacy techniques, Congressional staff rate personal visits to Washington, D.C., (83%) or district offices (81%), and think tank reports (81%) at the top of the list. 
  • Grassroots advocacy strategies score above 75% for effectiveness. 
  • In-person visits from lobbyists are considered effective by a strong majority (75%), as are town halls (73%) and lobby days (72%). 
  • Even social media posts are rated as effective by 57% of survey respondents.

“Everyone can advocate and be part of the policymaking process,” said Schultz-Cherry. “The myth that politics are too partisan for advocacy to be impactful is false. It’s important to do what you can, and every little bit helps."

Author: Ashley Mayrianne Robbins, MELP

Ashley Mayrianne Robbins, MELP
A. Mayrianne Champagne is a Communications Manager at the National Geographic Society.