Dear Scientist, you are the best spokesperson for science. Here’s how to be effective.

By Alexandra Erwin | Twitter | LinkedIn


Even though most of us are happily pursuing what we love, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t frustrated with certain aspects of the scientific enterprise. Concerns about research funding, graduate and postdoctoral training, and how to improve relations between science and the public are prevalent.

We often share our our frustrations with peers but we do ourselves a great disservice by not communicating our issues beyond colleagues. This is where science advocacy comes in. To make improvements to the science endeavor, we have to effectively communicate with the people who have the power to make changes. It’s important to remember that scientists aren’t a special interest group, but scientists do have the best understanding of what is at stake if science isn’t supported.

Depending on the issue you’re trying to address, relevant decision makers may be your department head, university administrators, local legislators, or representatives at the national level. It’s also important to remember that anyone you meet day-to-day is a fellow constituent and taxpayer, making their opinion influential to decision-makers.

This last September, there was a symposium dedicated specifically to science advocacy. The Advocating for Science Symposium was held on the MIT campus and was a joint effort by two non-profits consisting of early career scientists, The Future of Research and Academics for the Future of Science, and the MIT Graduate Student Council. Because being a graduate student in Kansas limits my exposure to these kinds of resources, I was especially eager for the opportunity to attend a meeting like this so I could bring this information back to my scientific community. I contacted the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, a local non-profit dedicated to advancing life science initiatives in our area and committed to assisting science advocacy. They graciously became a travel award sponsor for this meeting, enabling myself and several other out-of-state students to attend.

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Myself and fellow travel awardees. From left: Alex Erwin (me), Dr. Adriana Bankston, Elisa van der Plas (all the way from the Netherlands!) , Dr. Holly Hamilton, Dr. Sri Vedachalam, and not pictured here, Dr. Tess Eidem. Photo by Alina Chan, Future of Research.

You can find the schedule and recap of the meeting (including videos) here. The first day opened with organizers of the meeting framing the issues, a panel of people involved in science advocacy (watch), and a keynote speech from former congressman and current AAAS CEO Rush Holt (watch). The second day of the meeting was an advocacy bootcamp where we learned about different ways to advocate effectively. This included workshops on how to reach out to and talk to the media, how to create surveys, how to create and use infographics for advocacy, and how to speak about your research in an engaging way.

 

 

For others who may have limited exposure to advocacy or informational resources, I want to share my major takeaways from the meeting.

Advocacy 101: contact your representative. Here’s why it actually works.

The magic of contacting your representatives is that you actually represent more than one person when you do it. The infographic below shows the effective number of constituent voices you count for when you contact legislators. Because so few people actually contact legislators, staffers scale up different types of contact to different numbers of constituent voices.

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Infographic by Christine Oslowski; taken from Academics for the Future of Science

There is also a sweet spot for when you should contact legislators so you have the greatest impact. The most effective thing to do is to contact them twice a year (yes, that’s it!) when they’re in the process of working out funding. This is usually February/March (budgets first proposed) or August/September (funding finalized) during a one-week time frame.

Academics for the Future of Science have even gone above and beyond to making advocating for science research super easy with this form. It allows you to advocate to relevant legislators in under 2 minutes, and has the option for you to slightly personalize your email so it can count for even more voices.

Additionally, if you’re part of an academic society that occasionally send you form emails to encourage you to write to your representatives, don’t ignore them. Professional societies are cognizant of your limited time and only send these out when your support as a scientist is especially critical.

Get personal!

Here’s something REALLY important that I learned from the advocacy panel. Personalizing things when you advocate is vital. As scientists, we stick to data and leave the personal stuff out (duh, that’s what makes us so good at science). However, when you’re talking to people about issues in science, you have to make it personal to make it memorable. Facts and figures about the declining rate of research funding is not as effective as a personal story about how you or someone you know has been hurt by the lack of funding. Another tip (clutch your pearls here, folks) is to lay off of the data. Don’t forget, the fact that you’re a scientist already gives you credibility.

Effective advocacy strategies:

  • personal stories
  • 2-3 easily digestible facts
  • appeal to values and priorities of your audience
  • have a conversation instead of giving a lecture

 

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Science advocacy panel. From left: moderator Daniel Curtis, MIT Office Senior Policy Advisor: Dr. Kate Stoll, ASBMB Director of Public Affairs: Ben Corb, Director of the Early Career Scientist Segment at AAAS: Dr. Adam Fagen, Director of Programs for pgEd: Dr. Marnie Gilbert, and moderator Justin Taylor.

Shine a light on your issue.

The most inspiring and memorable part of this symposium for me was learning about how big changes can result from simple efforts. The key here is finding a way to get widespread exposure to an issue. If your issue gets the limelight on social media or through regular media channels, it is much more likely to be brought to the attention of, and be addressed by relevant decision-makers.

Think outside of the box

You need to either bring a new and compelling perspective to an existing issue or be the first to generate attention for a previously unknown or under-discussed issue. Creating a survey with effective questions is a way to discover new information or gather data on unknown or under-appreciated angles of an issue. Doctor Philip Brenner, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston gave us tips on how to collect survey data effectively.

Use compelling visuals

Infographics (like the one about constituent voices above) are a great way to advocate because they are attention-grabbing, distill a complex issue, and are easily shareable. To learn how to create effective infographics, see meeting presentation slides by Christine Oslowki here.

How to get journalists to talk about your work

We all know how difficult it is to distill a nuanced research topic for a general audience. However, this is integral to advocacy. A talk by David Cameron, the Director of Media Relations at the Harvard University Office of Public Affairs and Communications explained that an effective method is to turn research into a narrative. Speak about a research study as if there is a villain, a victim, and a hero. A simple example: the villain might be cancer, the victim, all of us, and the hero, a new compound. Make science the savior. Telling a narrative is critical to getting a news outlet to covering your research study or topic.

Karen Weintraub, science journalist and contributor to the New York Times and Scientific American gave us some tips on how to get the media to cover your research. Her advice included:

  • be interesting: say something counter-intuitive, surprising or insightful
  • be newsy: relate to people’s daily lives
  • be relevant: timing
  • offer an emotional punch: see this story

Your story is also more likely to be covered by journalists if you make it easy for them. This means you need to explain your science well, convey why it matters, and have compelling visuals that they can use. Karen also recommended a book called “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” by PhD and former Harvard professor of marine biology, Dr. Randy Olson. We also received tips on how to develop a broad communication strategy and how to be interviewed by the media by Ray Howell of Howell Communications.

Be a part of an advocacy community.

One of the most valuable parts of this meeting was the opportunity to meet and make connections with so many scientists passionate about advocacy. I encourage you to get connected with Future of Research here and Academics for the Future of Science here. You can stay current on relevant topics, shed a light on new issues, and help out with new or ongoing advocacy efforts.

Remember, you are the most qualified person to advocate for the improvement and preservation of science.

 

Follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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