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Credit: Giovanna Collu, Twitter, @Fruityflyfriend

Guest post by Giovanna Collu.

Are you planning a visit to Capitol Hill to advocate for science? We asked Giovanna Collu, former Co-Chair of the Early Career Scientist Policy Subcommittee, to discuss the lessons she learned representing GSA at a Hill Day organized by the Federation of American Societies For Experimental Biology (FASEB).  As well as representing GSA, Giovanna has also represented the American Physiological Society as an Early Career Advocacy Fellow.


What is the key for a successful visit to Capitol Hill?

Preparation is important—both in terms of understanding your audience and practicing what you want to say to them. Begin by researching the lawmakers whose office you will visit. You can do this by checking their committee assignment, which will tell you the areas over which they have the most influence. You can also look at their published positions on specific issues and learn more throughout the year by reading district newsletters and attending town halls or other public events.  

You’ll need to prepare an elevator pitch about your research. Depending on the availability of office staffers, you might not speak with someone whose background is in science, so you should prepare a brief description of your research that is understandable to non-scientists. Try to focus on the impact of your research and the reasons why you are working on this project rather than the technical details—you want your enthusiasm for the topic to come across. Your elevator pitch should set you up so that it’s clear you have the expertise to make an informed and reasonable request. Make sure that you have a specific ‘ask’; if you are working with an organization such as FASEB, they may provide you with specific language. On our visit, it was to include a $2 billion raise for NIH in the final fiscal year 2018 omnibus appropriations bill.


Why is this preparation important?

Knowing the background of the people you will meet with enables you to tailor your message to be most persuasive. Ideally, you want to present your request as the solution to a common problem, which means you need to try and frame your concern in a way that is appropriate to each individual. For each office that you visit, you might need to have different arguments, or at least place a different emphasis on those arguments, in order to better frame your request. The better prepared you are the more professional you will seem, which will give added weight to your message.


Tell us a little about your recent visit to the Hill.

The visit was organized by FASEB, who provided training and informational materials to leave with each office. As co-chairs of the ECS Policy Sub-committee, Emily Lescak and I represented GSA. It was notable that we were the only early career scientists to attend; it is great to be part of a society that puts trust in early career scientists!

We were grouped by region and, along with four other scientists, I visited the offices of New York’s 6th, 12th, 13th, and 14th districts, along with that of Senator Schumer. Our requests for increases in research funding for fiscal year 2018 were warmly received, and we were often asked what else they could do to help. Being part of a diverse group of advocates from different backgrounds and a mix of public and private universities and medical schools allowed us to present a range of examples for why federal funding for research is important. For instance, we explained that NSF funding supports infrastructure, which brings resources to local underserved communities and enhances educational opportunities. This broad range of experiences can help to avoid the appearance of self-interest in asking for more funding for your own field specifically and demonstrates the broader impact of research dollars.


What if you are visiting an office in a state whose economy isn’t as dependent on scientific research?

It’s helpful to use  FASEB’s factsheets that show the amount of research funding coming into each district; even if the state economy isn’t heavily reliant on research, there might still be a significant contribution in specific areas. Beyond the dollar amount, you can tell the story of how research funding supports the whole scientific enterprise—research grants and overheads contribute to salary for technical and administrative support, often from the local area, and can allow institutions to engage with the local community through outreach efforts. Examples from your own lab can help to illustrate the point. Many people outside of academia don’t realize that individual labs have a lot in common with small businesses and that loss of a grant or unpredictable future funding can lead to job losses and increased staff turnover.

There are also specific funding mechanisms that are designed to build research capacity in states with historically low levels of NIH funding, like the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, for example. If you live in one of these states, you can discuss the benefits of these federal programs with your Member of Congress.

Generally speaking, there is widespread and bipartisan support for biomedical research. Speaking about the broader impact of your work in terms of understanding basic biological processes, as well as any medical, industrial, or agricultural implications, can be another good starting point.  


What are key advocacy areas that you’d encourage scientists to discuss?

The meetings provide an opportunity to talk about issues that scientists face, including uncertainty around future increases in federal research funding. The sustainability of the research enterprise is important for researchers of all stages, but for many early career scientists, unpredictability is a key deciding factor in choosing to pursue other career options. The long-term effect of uncertainty on the composition of the biomedical workforce needs to be communicated to lawmakers. Personal stories from early career scientists can be powerful in explaining the barriers to entering academia or receiving training for non-academic careers.

As a society, GSA has many members working with experimental organisms. Our community must advocate for continued funding of research using these organisms. Part of that advocacy involves explaining the breakthroughs in basic science and biomedicine that are based on discoveries made using these organisms.    


What were the greatest benefits, to you as a professional, that came from your visit?

Being part of a diverse group of scientists gave me the opportunity to learn about all the different ways that federal research funding supports our local community. Overall, I found Hill Day to be an equalizing experience—early career scientists are just as able to advocate effectively as senior faculty. We should have more students and postdocs involved in advocacy activities, especially as we are the ones entering the scientific professions and will be the workforce of the future. Moreover, many of the challenges faced by early career scientists will be different from those faced by more senior faculty. Our advocacy needs to be as diverse as our community. Everyone brings a different and compelling perspective to share!

About the Author:

Giovanna Collu is a former co-chair of the Early Career Scientist Policy Committee and a postdoctoral fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Giovanna’s goal is to increase advocacy opportunities for early career scientists with a focus on diversity and inclusion.

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