Looking Beyond the March: How Do We Continue to Advocate for Science?

Originally published by The BMS Times

April 20, 2017

So, you’re heading to the March for Science this Saturday.

Scientists and their supporters will unify to bring awareness to the importance that science holds in our community, but then what? What happens once the excitement surrounding the March for Science dies down? How can we bring awareness to how invaluable science research is and have that result in positive policy changes and increased support from the general public?

Feeling overwhelmed and not sure where to focus your energy? I was as well.

So, when I saw someone was offering guidance, I jumped at the opportunity, and was surprised by how much I learned.

Yesterday, I tuned in for an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) webinar titled, “Be a Force for Science: Advocating for Science Beyond the March,” and ended the hour feeling far more hopeful. I was left with ideas that would not only help my communication with the public, but also help cultivate more productive interactions with policymakers and the media. The webinar was moderated by Erin Heath, Associate Director of the Office of Governmental Relations at AAAS, and included three panelists in diverse fields:

  • Francis Slakey, Interim Director of Public Affairs at the American Physical Society
  • Suzanne Ffolkes, Vice President of Communications at Research!America
  • Erika Shugart, Executive Director American Society for Cell Biology

The panel began with the unveiling of a new “advocacy toolkit” to help anyone who’s interested in being a “force for science.” In other words, AAAS has created a site rife with resources directed at everything from public outreach and science communication workshops to science policy and advocacy. This toolkit will be updated regularly, so continue to stay engaged by checking back in to find valuable resources that will help you navigate this complex landscape.

After the brief unveil, most of the hour was spent hearing from the panelists, who focused on three major topics: engaging with policymakers, engaging with the media, and engaging with the public.

Engaging with policymakers 

Francis Slakey weighed in on how we can actually make a difference when it comes to influencing policymakers. First, when proposing a policy or change to a policy, make an actionable request. Be sure that the policy you propose is something that, say, a congressional representative actually has the ability to introduce. Second: convey urgency. Congressional offices receive around 250 requests per day (that’s about one request every five minutes, if they were putting in a 24-hour work day!), so if you don’t convey the immediate necessity for what you’re proposing, it’s likely to get lost in the pile. Third: make it brief. Documents left for policymakers should be, at most, one page, so being concise goes a long way. And finally: be engaging. Think about a time when you changed your mind with regard to an important issue—what incited that change of heart? Oftentimes, connecting what you’re proposing to something  the policymaker already cares about will have the greatest impact.

Most importantly, although politics and policy are intertwined, your best chance of success rests on your ability to skip the party politics, to stick to the policy, and, as always, stay with the science.

Engaging with the media 

What will you do if you’re approached by a reporter at the March for Science who wants to know about your role in the scientific community? What if a few weeks from now someone asks to interview you about your research? What if you’re invited to give a public talk? Suzanne Ffolkes focused on how to have constructive interactions with the media.

Things to think about before engaging the media:

  • Do your homework (who am I talking with? what’s their background?).
  • Think about your audience (who are you trying to reach?), and build a narrative that resonates with that audience.
  • Craft an “elevator pitch” where you focus on the key messages surrounding your work. An elevator pitch should consist of an introduction, the problem your research addresses, the “so what” aspect of your research (why should anyone care about it?), and a take-home message for your work.
  • Tell your story, not your data.

Know that, when fielding tough questions, or questions framed in a way you disagree with, you can always choose not to answer them.

At the end of an interview, take the opportunity to correct any potential inaccuracies and clarify key points, i.e., prevent the dreaded misleading headline. Don’t hesitate to ask the reporter a couple of questions to ensure that you’re on the same page.

There are opportunities and resources out there to help sharpen your ability to communicate your science through the media, including AAAS Communicating Science workshops, and groups like Spectrum Science Communications and the Society for Neuroscience just to name a few.

Engaging with the public

Panelist Erika Shugart began by stressing the following: Disdain is an ineffective communication technique.

And it’s true—disdain will only be met with defensiveness and a potentially valuable discussion will be halted. Both parties will likely be aggravated and more harm than good will result.

As a scientist, when talking to the public, don’t “dumb down” your research. And, while you’re at it, don’t use the phrase “dumb down.” Think about how you can simplify your research but still engage your audience. Removing important information about your work because you deem it more difficult to comprehend can actually lead to disengagement.

One way to keep most of the content but make it accessible is to remove, or clarify, scientific jargon. For instance, instead of saying, “Stem cells of the olfactory epithelium have the ability to proliferate and differentiate,” try, “Stem cells found in the skin inside of your nose, called the olfactory epithelium, are capable of replicating themselves as well as becoming other olfactory cell types.” Think about trying to always create a dialogue, talking with instead of at an audience.

Finding ways to engage with the public can be daunting, so partnering with scientific societies or local groups can make it a lot easier. For instance, see if you can give a talk at a local science festival, bring a science booth to a town fair, or host an event at a local museum.

Keeping this movement moving

Member of the scientific community or not, we need well-informed people who will support and advocate for science now and into the future. So, head off to your respective March for Science this Earth Day knowing that this is only the beginning.

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