The Universal Traits of Effective Science Advocates

Dec. 8, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic starkly brought to the forefront the essential role of government in the scientific endeavors at the local, national and global levels. Not only did states and countries need to work with expert scientists; they needed to work together. As an international student observing the thread between U.S. government and research institutes, my perspective was that the U.S. government’s science-friendly atmosphere allowed for policies that favored expedited, quality research.  While the entire process was not completely without its challenges, the innovation I witnessed in 2020 would not have been possible without government support for the research, development and application of new technologies.

The opportunity to participate in ASM’s 2021 Hill Day online and interact with Congressional staffers was one I could not afford to miss. Through ASM’s training leading up to, and including, my interactions with Congressional staffers from Nebraska (where I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska Medical Center), I honed the skills necessary to advocate for policies that advance the scientific enterprise. Having a front-row seat to lawmakers and their thought processes as they listened to evidence and decided on policies to enact was eye-opening. I have come to appreciate the need for knowledgeable people drafting and proposing data-driven policies and I hope to bring some of my experience to my home country, Nigeria.

In many ways, policymaking is not a one-size-fits-all approach. However, regardless of where in the world one is advocating, the core players and principles remain the same. Lawmakers act as policymakers, proposing bills and policies and approving the nation’s budget. While they are elected by the people, lawmakers are not experts in all the fields where they are required to propose and vote on policies. This underscores the importance of subject matter experts (both serving as advocates and those who work in a policymaker’s office) with specific knowledge or personal experience in their fields. The insight and testimony from undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members, researchers and scientific advisors is crucial for lawmakers to enact evidence-based policies.

What does one need to be successful in science advocacy? The following attributes are universal requirements.

  • Interest: To engage with policymakers, one must be interested in the policy matters of the day. Before engaging, the advocate should plan to do some political research. There’s a difference between policy and politics, and it’s important to learn about elected officials and the policies they support. For example, the National Assembly in Nigeria — as with many other countries — maintains digital records of all the bills that have been proposed by legislative bodies. Members of the National Assembly in Nigeria, that is, Senators and House of Representatives members, are key players in the policymaking process as they control government priorities and spending. Since government has the potential to be the biggest funder of research within a country, it is important for elected officials and policymakers to understand and appreciate the contribution of scientific research toward ensuring the country’s advancement.
  • Clarity: Science advocates should be clear about the ‘ask’ — the desired action for the policymaker take on a specific policy or issue — and communicate it clearly. The ask could be a request for increased funding for scientific research, or a proposal for programming that increases access to research opportunities for students. The policymaker might want to know how the ask provides value to their constituents. The importance of science and its impact on public health and advancement cannot be understated. Note that it is critical to speak with the right person for each ask. An effective advocate can not only explain research concisely with minimal scientific jargon, but can also help the policymaker to connect the dots from the science to the ask.  
  • Patience: A science advocate should be prepared to answer questions. As with other non-scientists, the policymaker may not have the background to completely understand the scientific process. This highlights the value of meeting with support staff or advisors for a legislative office, who may have additional expertise and advice they can share with the policymaker.  The policymaker will react more favorably to an ask that is put within their language and context. Note that this is not the time for political discussions but instead for objectivity. A discussion with a particular politician should not be based on their political affiliation but rather on their ability and/or willingness to listen to their constituents. Sometimes reaching elected officials and policymakers can be frustrating, to put it mildly. Policymakers can be busy, and the best outreach will balance politeness and persistence. Engage often and in different ways. Beyond one-on-one meetings, writing letters, sending emails, making phone calls, writing op-eds and volunteering as an expert witness can help increase impact. Consider inviting elected officials to tour labs, helping them to ‘see’ where the money goes.
  • Organization: This is the most important part of this process. As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers. Recruit colleagues, students, professors and administrators to help approach policymakers and strengthen science’s collective voice. Decide on which policymaker(s) to engage with and which issues will be on the agenda. These decisions could be based on several factors, such as access to the politicians and their staff, their affiliation with relevant committees, or their track records of votes and bills sponsored. One does not have to start from scratch. There are several organizations, such as ASM, that provide assistance as well as a blueprint for organizing and engaging with policymakers.

The simplest way to begin advocating is to start small and engage locally. Participating in effective advocacy will require your interest as a scientist in the causes and policies that intersect with science, clear messaging, patience in the process and a high level of organization. Implementing these can lead to policies that are driven by scientists’ work and in turn help drive innovative research, making our world a better place.


Author: Opeoluwa Oyewole

Opeoluwa Oyewole
Opeoluwa Oyewole is a Ph.D. candidate in the Reid Lab at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.