Robby Goldman (Advocacy Committee Chair)
This past academic year, I had the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. three times to learn about Congressional science policy and meet with Illinois Congressional staff members. From these trips, I have gained valuable experience interacting with Congressional staff (and occasionally, members of Congress), and came away with a better understanding of my representatives’ priorities and how certain science-based policies fit within their goals.
The objective of each of my trips was to encourage my Congressional representatives to support consistent federal science funding that keeps pace with inflation (corresponding with increases of roughly 4% per year). Federal support is necessary for sustaining critical, cutting-edge research projects, which are often multi-year endeavors. My own research team, the Volcano Geophysics Lab at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), has been improving methods for predicting when and where volcanic eruptions will occur, a topic of recent national interest thanks to the vigorous eruptive activity of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. Our research team’s efforts are guided by years of work conducted by our advisor, Dr. Trish Gregg, and her colleagues, and federal funding is necessary for sustaining many of the scientific discoveries that our team has and will continue to make over the coming years.
Strong and consistent federal science funding is also critical for supporting thousands of young scientists, like myself, across the country through research grants and fellowships. The volcano modeling research that my colleagues and I conduct at the University of Illinois, for example, is funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). In fact, three years of my graduate study will be supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Moreover, as a top (R1) research institution, the University of Illinois has been awarded the most NSF funding of any university for the last six years, which supports thousands of student and faculty scientists. Other federal science agencies that support geoscience research, either through direct funding or indirectly through instrumentation, include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Given the necessity of federal science funding for supporting the research that I and thousands of other UIUC scientists conduct, I was shocked and dismayed in early 2017 to see the drastic cuts that President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposed for numerous science agencies, including NASA (3%), NSF (11%), NOAA (16%), USGS (15%), DOE (9%), and EPA (31%). It was these proposed cuts, and my fear that scientific enterprise was no longer a national priority, that motivated me to visit Washington, D.C.—for the first time—and communicate my concerns to my members of Congress.
My first visit to D.C. took place in September 2017, when I was selected by the North-Central Section of the Geological Society of America to participate in the American Geosciences Institute’s “Geosciences Congressional Visits Days.” The first day of this workshop included an introduction to Congressional science policy and a Q&A panel led by two science professionals working in the federal government. The second day consisted of meetings with the staff of various members of Congress. Several dozen scientists participated in this workshop, and each of us were assigned to small teams of roughly 4 people for our Congressional visits. My experience meeting and learning from other politically engaged scientists was inspiring, and meeting with Congressional staff provided me with valuable experience in communicating my concerns and priorities as a scientist to my representatives.
My positive interactions with both scientists and Congressional staff motivated me to visit D.C. two more times this past spring. The first took place in March, when I participated in the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering Workshop (CASE) as a representative of UIUC’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This workshop was a four-day event that allowed me to learn about Congressional science policy in even greater depth than in September. Our speakers included Bill Foster and Rush Holt, PhD physicists who have both served in Congress; several professionals working in federal science agencies; and Congressional science fellows working for members of Congress. In addition to its distinguished speakers, this event hosted nearly 200 student scientists from over 70 U.S. universities and research institutions! Though each day was busy, I met and talked with many of these students during our pre-workshop reception, workshop lunch breaks, and a post-workshop dinner.
On the final day of the AAAS workshop, I joined four other UIUC students and two Northwestern students in meeting with staff of Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) to advocate for research and development funding.
This would be the first of several occasions that I would meet with Lauren Aycock, a Congressional Science Fellow for Senator Durbin who conducted some of her undergraduate physics research at UIUC. Lauren knew first-hand the importance of federal science funding–her own research had been interrupted prior to completing her PhD due to federal budget cuts–and encouraged us to share stories of our research with the public and our representatives to increase awareness of its societal value.
As chance would have it, Lauren would be visiting our campus in late April to give a talk to the physics department about her Congressional Science Fellowship. As members of the Science Policy Group (SPG) at UIUC, Reshmina William (representing the College of Engineering) and I were able to organize a coffee meet-up between Lauren and several members of our group during her April visit.
Finally, I led a meeting between our UIUC cohort and Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL 13th District), to advocate for science R&D funding and describe the roles that our diverse disciplines play in supporting our Congressional district’s infrastructure, agriculture, and human health.
I found it immensely satisfying to meet and share the importance of scientific research with one of my members of Congress. I was also heartened that Congressional support for federal science funding is bipartisan: my senators (both Democrats) and Congressional representative (a Republican) not only expressed support for this funding, but helped pass a spending bill—just two days after our meetings—that increased funding for most science agencies for Fiscal Year 2018! Of the six agencies that I listed previously—NASA, NSF, NOAA, USGS, DOE, and EPA—none received cuts to their total budgets, and only the EPA received flat funding (as opposed to an increase). Although I can’t claim most of the credit for this legislation, I feel proud to have played a small, yet valuable, part in defending federal science funding for this calendar year. My colleagues and I even had to brave a snow storm–on the first day of spring–to meet with our representatives, but it was worth it (plus, it made for a great selfie)!
My second visit to DC this spring, and third overall, took place in April, and served as my orientation to the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) “Voices for Science” program, for which 29 other scientists and I committed to organizing community events throughout the year. We are split evenly into two tracks: one geared towards communicating with policymakers, and the other towards communicating with the media. As a member of the policy track, I will be organizing events in Illinois that focus on science policymaking, such as hosting a town hall on renewable energy legislation or a workshop on effective letter-writing to Congressional representatives. Participants of the Voices for Science initiative were also grouped into regional teams, first to coordinate Congressional visits, and subsequently to discuss individual plans and progress in engaging members of our communities with science advocacy. I am part of the “IL-MI” regional team, which includes Rachel Kirpes, a PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Michigan, and Carissa Bunge, a Senior Public Affairs Specialist at AGU who grew up in Naperville, IL.
The focus of the policy-track of the AGU workshop, like AAAS CASE, was to provide an in-depth introduction to Congressional science policy, particularly science funding. We learned that although the recently approved FY18 budget contained many increases in federal science funding, the President’s FY19 budget again contained drastic cuts to many science agencies. However, we were in D.C. at an apt time, when Congressional appropriations committees were discussing how to allocate federal funds for 2019. Thus, my AGU colleagues and I were tasked with asking our legislators to continue supporting federal science funding increases commensurate with inflation.
To prepare, we broke off into our regional teams to pitch our funding requests to AGU staff who acted as science-championing, science-friendly, and fiscally conservative members of Congress. Ironically, these practice meetings were more formal and challenging than my team’s actual conversations with Illinois and Michigan Congressional staff! Everyone we met with was supportive of our requests for increased science funding, including Lauren Aycock, whom I had met with just weeks earlier. Our meetings also touched upon the importance of educating policymakers on natural hazards and advanced Earth and space science through two Congressional caucuses.
Additionally, I had the pleasure of meeting with James Chang, Science and Technology L.A. for Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) with a detailed background in volcano policy! Although I was representing Illinois that day, I had specifically requested to meet with James for three reasons: 1) I have family in Honolulu, and Hawaiian ancestry, 2) I would soon be conducting research investigating patterns in Kilauea’s eruptive activity with computer models, 3) I share my alma mater, Pomona College, with James’ boss, Senator Schatz. Although I did not have an opportunity to meet with the Senator himself, I had a very informative conversation with James regarding Hawaiian volcano monitoring and the Congressional Hazards Caucus, which educates members of Congress and their staff on natural hazards, including volcanic eruptions. This was a fitting conversation to have, considering the surge in eruptions from Kilauea volcano that commenced just weeks later!
I have gained useful experience in science policy communication from each of my three visits to D.C. and Capitol Hill. For my colleagues who wish to visit the offices of their Congressional representatives—perhaps during AGU’s Fall Meeting—I have the following advice:
First, Congressional meetings are what you make them. Know your priorities, and tie your concerns to your own experiences as a scientist. These meetings are brief, and their structure is organized around what you, the constituent, choose to talk about. It may be intimidating to ask your representative or senator for something, but that ask is precisely why you are having a meeting in the first place. That said, your visit will have the greatest impact on the person you are meeting with, whether a policymaker or staffer, if you explain how your research and expertise benefits the public, particularly in your district or state. For example, I emphasized the importance of federal science funding in sustaining groundbreaking research at the University of Illinois. I also explained how my lab group’s volcanology discoveries can mitigate the risks posed by active volcanoes to tourists of the Big Island of Hawai’i, or provide more accurate eruption forecasts for the dozens of active Aleutian volcanoes that can erupt along busy trans-Pacific flight routes.
Second, be respectful of your representative’s time and opinions. Although Congressional debates may be partisan, your meetings with members of Congress or their staff should not be. As Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA 9th District) explained during AGU’s pre-Congressional-visits breakfast in April, if a constituent made offensive remarks during a meeting, the Congressman would instinctively raise his defenses, precluding any meaningful discourse on policy. Conversely, engaging in polite and non-partisan conversation leaves open the opportunity for building a stronger relationship with your representative. In fact, Representative McNerney emphasized that people who know you are less likely to turn down your requests, either for meetings or enacting certain policies.
Third, be persistent. You can make a difficult ask without being rude, and you do not need to back down from your ask just to avoid an awkward pause from your representative or their staffer. Just make sure that you justify your ask by tying it to your policymaker’s priorities, whether they be for resilient infrastructure, a clean environment, or strong economy. Moreover, you should be persistent in maintaining relationships with the offices of your representatives after you meet with them. Always send follow-up thank-you emails to the people you meet with, reviewing what you discussed, what you asked for, and ways that you can be a resource for them. Over the long term, you can continue the conversation by providing your representatives with research updates or policy developments that you think would interest them. Eventually, your representatives may start reaching out to you to for advice on a specific piece of legislation! This will only happen, though, if you take the initiative to maintain a relationship with your policymakers.
Finally, you are part of an ever-growing community of scientists who are making their voices heard at all levels of government, from local to federal. As a result, there are plenty of resources for first-time science advocates. For example, AGU has a science policy website (https://sciencepolicy.agu.org/) complete with resources for calling or writing your legislators, organizing a successful district visit, visiting your representatives on Capitol Hill, and more! AGU’s Public Affairs Team can be reached at email@example.com if you have any questions that aren’t addressed on their website. Also, see if there are any science advocacy groups within your own community, such as my university’s Science Policy Group, that can more easily help you engage with policymakers. Or, see if you can find a group of people who would be willing to organize science advocacy activities in your own neighborhood! Regardless of what you choose to do, just know that you have a voice that you can use to benefit science, scientists and the general public here in the United States of America.