How to engage Congress

The knowledge and expertise contained within our community constitutes a major potential asset to the legislative process, but only if that scientific knowledge filters through to legislators and their key staff. For that, you can help.

Injecting scientific information into a policy debate can be difficult, since scientists are not trained to engage with decision makers or the public, and since policy makers tend to have weak scientific foundations. Nevertheless, crafting sound policy depends on grounding legislation in the best available knowledge and understanding. Only the active engagement of the scientific community can ensure that elected officials and their key staffers make well-informed decisions.

Influencing the Congressional process on any issue depends on establishing contact and working with the staff members who focus on it. Staffers inform members of Congress, develop legislation, write speeches, negotiate legislative compromises, and help select witnesses for hearings. Indeed, the importance of congressional staff in the policy process cannot be overestimated. This is good news, because staffers, while often heavily overburdened, are more accessible than elected members and considerably easier to approach.

Each U.S. senator and each representative in the House has a staffer who handles climate change legislation, usually as one of several issues. Therefore, most U.S. citizens have access to three staffers (two in the Senate and one in the House) who will help determine the course of climate legislation. To influence the legislative process, begin by reaching out to these staffers.

To do so you must first find out who covers the climate change issue. Usually this is the legislative assistant (LA) who handles energy and environmental policy issues. You can find out who that is by calling the office, consulting a congressional reference book, or searching the Web. I get this information from www.governmentguide.com, which accepts a zip code as input and then returns up-to-date information on the district’s elected representatives, their key staffers, and what areas each staff member covers.

Fortunately, e-mail addresses for congressional staff follow simple conventions for both the Senate (firstname_lastname@senatorslastname.senate.gov) and the House (firstname.lastname@mail.house.gov), so once you have a name, you have an e-mail address. Send a short message that makes clear why you want to talk and that gives them a reason to want to talk to you. Good reasons for them to talk to you are that you are a constituent, that you work on a critical aspect of the issue, that you have specialized understanding that can be a resource to them, and that you work at an important institution in their district. Ask to arrange a time to talk. Meeting in person is best but talking on the phone is also worthwhile.

What you say will depend on your specific objectives. Be clear about what you want the member to do (e.g., recognize a risk or opportunity and provide leadership toward finding a solution), and be concise. Explain why the information you provide is important to the member’s district or state, and how your knowledge can be used to help their constituents. Above all, protect and build your credibility. Be straightforward if you don’t know an answer, and don’t exaggerate. You want to become a trusted and reliable source of information. Over time, this will greatly increase your potential to improve the legislative process.

Be careful in discussing your own research. We all recognize that translating scientific information for broader audiences is difficult. This can be a major obstacle for influencing the policy process. Keep in mind that your own research will matter most if 1) it is directly relevant to a policy decision (e.g., it helps clarify a risk or opportunity that affects the member’s constituents), or 2) you can connect it to the larger body of scientific knowledge that is relevant to policy choices that will affect the member’s district.

If you are engaged in research at an institution in the district, you could also invite the member or their key staff to tour the facility (NB: you might check with your institution’s Legislative Affairs Office for constraints or help). This provides an opportunity to establish contact and develop a more personal relationship while informing the member about your work and why that work matters to the state or district. It will also help establish you as a trusted resource on related scientific questions. Understand that these visits are good opportunities for members to meet with their constituents and to learn about the important work going on in their districts, and which they can draw attention to in future speeches. As such, visits to important institutions within the district are a critical component of constituent politics. Senators, representatives, and their staff make visits like these constantly.

Even the process of inviting an elected member or their staff for a visit can help establish contact with the offices in the district and in Washington, D.C. Call the local office and ask who you need to talk with and to whom you should send a letter of invitation. If you invite the member and they agree to visit, reach out to the appropriate LA in the Washington office to give them background details. This is a great opportunity to develop a working relationship with the LA as they prepare the member for the visit. If the member cannot visit, by all means invite the staffer.

Additional resources to aid efforts to influence Congress abound. Members of the AMS Policy Program can provide assistance and more information. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) publishes a helpful guide for scientists who work with Congress titled Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for Scientists and Engineers (Wells 2002; go to www.aaas.org/spp/cstc/wwc/book.htm for more information), and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University provides assistance to scientists who interact with Congress (www. nicholas.duke.edu/institute). Researchers interested in honing their skills with the federal policy process can take advantage of training opportunities provided by the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, an intense 10-day training in the federal policy process, or the Aldo Leopold Fellowship program, which trains senior scientists to communicate their work effectively to nonscientific audiences (www.leopoldleadership.org). For the dedicated, the AMS–UCAR Congressional Science Fellowship and the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (http://fellowships.aaas. org/) programs provide researchers with an opportunity to work directly in the policy process in either Congress or the executive branch for up to two years.

The AMS community has the scientific understanding and technical expertise needed to ground climate policy with the best available knowledge. By directly engaging with members of Congress and their key staff, we can help improve the federal policy process.

-PAUL A. T. HIGGINS

(Adapted from a column in BAMS)