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Going Local and Viral: How the Office of Government Relations is Working On, Through and With COVID-19

Joanne Padrón-Carney.

AAAS Members might best know the Office of Government Relations (OGR) for the Policy Alert emails that are delivered to more than 100,000 subscribers each week. OGR, a small, powerhouse team of 5, keeps a close eye on national science and technology policy and funding. To help AAAS Members take action, they provide communication and advocacy workshops to hundreds of attendees annually and offer training for graduate students to effectively engage with policymakers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have continued to monitor policy, host virtual workshops, and provide new opportunities for members be a voice for science. As part of AAAS’ overall advocacy, they have weighed in on recent efforts to restrict visas to foreign students and researchers, as well as the recent update to the EPA science transparency rule.

Other OGR initiatives and offerings are also planned for the coming months. For Joanne Padrón-Carney, who heads the OGR as its Chief Government Relations Officer, connecting science with policymakers and advocating for investment in research has only become more urgent.

 

Local Science Engagement Network is expanding

OGR has long focused on federal policy. Its new program, the AAAS Local Science Engagement Network (LSEN), is working to expand outreach activities and capabilities to the state and local levels. The network started in 2019 because AAAS Members increasingly requested support to engage with policy closer to home.

Daniel Barry.

“There is an evident thirst for this kind of organizing, this kind of opportunity for rank and file scientists to gain communication and advocacy skills and dive into constructive conversations,” says Daniel Barry, who directs the LSEN network for OGR.

The network’s goal is to establish, train, and guide cohorts of science advocates who are empowered to provide unbiased, easy-to-understand and locally relevant information on policy issues in their states and communities.

“Making content locally relevant is critically important,” Barry says. “You can’t talk to Missouri farmers about soil health and soil carbon sequestration by using examples from Kansas. It can work, but it is not nearly as effective.”

Starting this fall, members from any state can register in the LSEN online platform, which will provide access to training materials, and allow AAAS to ping them about opportunities to participate. To join, participants must agree that, when acting as part of LSEN, to not advocate for or against specific legislation, but rather take on the role of “honest broker,” presenting facts and evidence for decision makers to consider as part of the policy-making process. (This does not preclude scientists from commenting on policy options based on the underlying scientific evidence in their personal capacity.) 

LSEN is also working to establish state scientific advisory boards, pulling together experts from academia, industry and nonprofits to coordinate outreach and identify issues on which members can effectively contribute. LSEN advisory boards have been established in Colorado, Missouri and Georgia as part of the initial pilot phase, with plans to expand to more states in the coming years.

“We’re developing a ground game,” Barry says. “We are excited to empower our members to be positive agents of change, especially on the state and local level where there are more opportunities to engage directly.”

Already members are making a difference. In one instance, a LSEN partner in Missouri quickly compiled background science about milk production and safety for a state lawmaker whose committee was considering rules related to unprocessed milk. The lawmaker reportedly found the information so helpful, he taped the scientist’s business card next to his phone.

“There is a clear and unmet need for scientific information, especially in state legislatures where lawmakers are making decisions at a fast pace and simply don’t have easy access to facts and analysis,” Barry says. “LSEN aims to meet that need.”

 

#ResearchRelief collaboration

The pandemic has severely impacted university research and innovation, putting many research projects on hold and at risk of being left unfinished as scheduled funding ends. Careers of graduate students and postdocs, which often depend on time-limited contracts, hang in dire limbo. Without emergency funding, valuable research could be lost, along with young scientists leaving their fields. When the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, & Technology scheduled a hearing on this topic Sept. 9, AAAS worked to highlight the issue to lawmakers and the broader public, particularly on social media with the hashtags #ResearchRelief and #FundScience.

Notably, AAAS collaborated with more than 20 other scientific professional societies to coordinate outreach efforts timed with the congressional hearing. AAAS helped bring interested partners together “to speak with one voice and be a force for science,” says Carney, who has directed OGR since 1997.

Carney was particularly inspired by how open the organizations were in sharing their best practices for communicating on different platforms and moving quickly to respond to a common concern affecting their respective members.

“We are hoping this is the beginning of a longer-term relationship, and one that can serve as a template for other issues as they emerge,” Carney says.

 

Golden Goose Awards for COVID-19

OGR says the 2020 Golden Goose Awards will be a little different this year. Since 2012, the awards have recognized federally funded research that sounded obscure or even silly, but went on to significantly benefit society. The awards were the idea of Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN) and founded by AAAS and eight other organizations to highlight the often unexpected and serendipitous nature of science. This spring, AAAS called for submissions that would highlight how researchers and labs funded by federal agencies were able to quickly pivot to address COVID-19, or how research that may not have seemed relevant has proven beneficial during the pandemic.

Erin Heath.

“We were excited to get so many interesting stories – it showed we were onto something,” says OGR associate director Erin Heath, who co-organizes the awards for AAAS.

Consideration for the 2020 awards has closed, but submissions for regular Golden Goose Awards are always accepted on a rolling basis. Another round of COVID-specific awards may be solicited next year. The annual award ceremony is normally held in the Library of Congress with hundreds of attendees. The 2020 awards will be presented during a virtual ceremony this winter, allowing even more people to attend.

The awards have served as an excellent way to raise awareness about the scientific process, how advancements build on each other, and how useful applications are not always, or even often, obvious at the outset. These powerful stories are retold in the halls of Congress, and have even made it into a question on “Jeopardy!”

“We want to show how important it is that the federal government supports scientific research,” Heath says. “You can’t always predict where research will go, but work that happened before has made it possible for scientists to now respond to COVID-19. We could not be where we are today without federal support.”

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Follow AAAS’s OGR on Twitter.

For more information about the LSEN, and to find out how to get involved, please contact Dan at scienceengagement@aaas.org.

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Laura Petersen