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Science and Human Rights Policy Advocacy Workshop: Working with Congress: Leveraging Your Experience to Impact Policymakers


Gabriel Velez, Marquette University


  • Speaker
    • Sean Gallagher, Senior Government Relations Officer, AAAS
    • Theresa Harris (Moderator), Project Director, AAAS
    • Chloe McPherson, Associate, Government Relations, AAAS
  • Summary
    • This session centered on discussing two key pillars for effectively communicating to policy makers: knowing one’s audience and advocating by telling your story.  These two points link into a broader awareness that information and data is not received in a vacuum, but may be interpreted differently by different people based on their motivations, perspectives, and needs.
  • First Pillar: Knowing One’s Audience
    • This background and understanding of an audience for advocacy helps one meet them where they are as one presents a science-based case to them.  With a specific attention to Congress, Sean presented information and details on policy makers and highlighted key elements of their priorities and focuses.  Key elements of the broader demographics of Congress include that many are not scientists—business and law backgrounds are more prevalent—and as a whole they are not very diverse by gender or background, but this is changing. 
    • In terms of the structure of Congress, committees are a central role as they are where bills and funding begin. In order to advocate for either, it is important to recognize the demands on finances and time of the politicians and the staffers one will meet with.  To make one’s message stand out, it is important to make it resonate with them and their interests.
  • Second Pillar: Advocating By Telling Your Story
    • Sean described how it is critical not only to put one’s message into plain language, but think about how to frame a narrative that will link with policymakers’ motivations.  To this end, Sean highlighted that the three key factors influencing policymakers are media and current events, personal conviction, and their locality/constituents. 
    • Telling one’s story should involve memorable and memorable personal stories, drawing on basic language understandable broadly, and connecting to salient priorities like jobs, the economy, or local initiatives.  Some of this takes a shift in how scientists often think about their work and data, from thinking that a scientific, data-driven approach removes bias to recognizing and speaking to the factors underlying politicians' motivations. 
    • Concretely, this entails talking about one’s experiences (rather than just data), be willing to say one doesn’t know, and willing to let the conversation go where the staff member wants to take it.  It also means avoiding casting federal funding as an entitlement, criticizing other interest groups and using jargon.
  • Post-presentation Discussion
    • Focused on specific issues--climate change and vaccinations--that draw strong and divisive reactions.  Participants were interested in trying to think about and strategize how to approach changing people’s minds (including those of policy makers) when the science is clear, but other narratives and politics are significant obstacles.
    • Theresa Harris noted that this approach is effective as well for advocacy involving science and human rights.  Human rights work is inherently connected to people’s lives and stories, which can be drawn upon in connecting to audiences of policy makers and their staff.  This point also linked into a conversation about thinking not simply about a one-time interaction with a policy maker, but broader work to use other pressures to motivate action.


Key Points/Takeaways:

  • Reframe issues into topics that matter
    • For instance, moving from climate to security and the cost of insurance
  • Link topics into “local”
    • What resonates with audience and making it local to the audience
  • Drawing on the science of how to effectively communicate
    • AAAS has a group that focuses on this topic. 
  • Prioritize objective
    • In relation to the specific audience by being clear and direct about what your goal is and how you can get there with the audience you have.
  • As scientists, we can educate and get messages out locally, which others may then echo and build on in creating further pressures for action. 



  • Advocacy
  • Communication
  • Public Policy


Additional Resources: