Translating Science to Policy: How to be a Science Advocate


Every year in our nation’s Capitol, there is a different kind of March Madness, otherwise known as appropriation season.  The President typically releases the fiscal year budget to Congress in February (this year, President Obama released Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 Budget on February 9), at which time the budget process is handed over to Congress. Both the House and the Senate budget committees can submit budget resolutions by April 1, which are then put up for vote by their respective Congressional peers.  If no budget resolution is passed, the resolution from the previous year continues.  An even stranger occurrence is when Congress sets forth a budget completely independent of the President’s proposed budget.  This happened as recently as 2014, when the House submitted a budget proposal on March 21, the Senate on March 23, and the President on April 10!

Complicated, right?  All this is to say that the budget appropriations process is a messy one.  Capitol Hill is busier than ever during the month of March, when people and organizations from all over are vying for their piece of the FY budget.

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On Thursday, March 17th, I had the opportunity to be a junior lobbyist alongside other Society for Neuroscience members at SfN’s Hill Day.  This organized event brought together SfN members from all across the country to Capitol Hill for a day filled with meeting members of Congress and their legislative staff to stress the importance of sustained funding for neuroscience research.  This year, we encouraged those we met with to support appropriations of at least $34.5 billion in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding and at least $8 billion in National Science Foundation (NSF) funding.

Alongside fellow graduate students and faculty representing SfN, my group met with staff from the offices of Representative Xavier Becerra (CA-34), Representative Ted Lieu (CA-33), Senator Barbara Boxer (CA), Senator Claire McCaskill (MO), and Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA).  The staff, consisting mostly of legislative assistants, are vital to communicating what constituents want to the representatives themselves.  The unexpected surprise of the day was getting to meet with Representative Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48) himself!  We wove in and out of the tunnels beneath the House office buildings, met with Republicans and Democrats alike, spoke to staff and Congressman Rohrabacher himself about the work we do and why sustained funding for scientific research is important — and, it was one of the most exciting days of my career.

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Often, we get bogged down in the minutia of our work.  We fester over small details, we obsess over troubleshooting, and we get personally attached to our failings and successes alike.  The investment we have in science is part of what makes us such fantastic researchers, but Hill Day taught me how important it is to take a step back and reframe your science in a different manner.  To prepare for our meetings, we developed elevator pitches, or 60-second synopses of our research without any jargon or technical details.  The exercise was a difficult yet rewarding one, and taught me the importance of communicating your science.  All of the staff and the Congressman my group met with were moved by our stories, invested in our research, and keen to continue funding us, due entirely to the power in effectively communicating our research.

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These visits to Capitol Hill happen en masse every March, but there is plenty you can do to advocate for science at other times of the year.  First and foremost, talk about your research to anyone who will listen, whether it’s your grandmother or your Uber driver.  Relaying the importance of your work is an empowering experience not only for yourself, but for the people around you.  If you are interested in advocating on a higher level, write to your representatives in Congress either encouraging them to support scientific funding if they currently don’t, or thanking them for their sustained advocacy if they do.  Travel to your local or state offices to practice science advocacy, get involved with professional organizations that lobby to both politicians and the public.  Most importantly, do something.  Scientific research has the potential to change lives and impact the world, but lives in a vacuum until advocates such as us translate it to something more.

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Jenn Tribble

Jennifer Tribble graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013 with a B.S. in Chemistry and a B.S. in Microbiology. She first discovered her love of neuroscience research as an undergraduate, and is now working toward her PhD at UCLA in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Fanselow. Jennifer’s interests lie primarily in behavioral neuroscience, and specifically mapping cellular changes to holistic behavioral phenotypes. In the Fanselow lab, she studies fear behavior and Pavlovian conditioning to understand the neural mechanisms of fear acquisition and extinction.