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Defending Science Must Continue After March for Science, Experts Say

Visit the AAAS Force for Science website to follow the latest updates related to AAAS advocacy activities.

Scientists and science supporters need to continue their advocacy efforts after the upcoming March for Science, said experts during a AAAS webinar on April 19. | From left: Photo Courtesy of Suzanne Ffolkes | Gina Eppolito | Photo courtesy of the American Society for Cell Biology

Understanding your audience and crafting a concise message will remain critical to effectively communicating the benefits of science after the upcoming March for Science, said experts during a AAAS webinar on April 19.

The discussion provided communication tips and strategies, with the goal of helping scientists and science enthusiasts continue their support of science after the April 22nd march.

The webinar also marked the launch of the AAAS Advocacy Toolkit, a collection of resources assembled to help scientists and science enthusiasts take a hands-on role in promoting science.

During the event, Francis Slakey, interim director of public affairs at the American Physical Society, said the march is likely to energize supporters and inspire them to continue promoting science in their communities.

“Think of the march as your opportunity to carbo-load before the advocacy marathon,” Slakey said.

The webinar’s three speakers each focused on a specific audience targeted by science communicators, with Slakey offering tips for those engaging with policymakers.

Slakey emphasized the importance of having a reasonable, actionable request for lawmakers when meeting with them. He also said because of the high volume of inquiries that congressional offices have to field, it is essential for scientists to convey the urgency of their message.

“If your issue isn’t urgent, it will drop to the bottom of the pile,” said Slakey.

He also suggested that those meeting with lawmakers should prepare a one-page rundown of the problem they would like addressed and leave the summary with the policymaker or the staff member handling the issue after their meeting.

Slakey said that the exercise serves the dual purpose of providing information that the lawmaker can later use and teaching scientists and supporters of science how to cast succinct messages.

Research!America’s Vice President of Communications Suzanne Ffolkes offered advice for scientists during the webinar on how best to interact with journalists.

Ffolkes said that the media attention generated by the March for Science presents a unique chance for scientists. “There’s an opportunity to weigh in, talk about your research and tell a compelling story,” she said.

Ffolkes said that, during interviews, scientists should remember to convey why the reporter’s audience should care about their research. “Tell your story, not your data,” she added.

If a scientist is approached by a journalist during the March for Science and asked why they are marching, Ffolkes recommended that they explain why they are excited about and committed to their work and then provide additional details about their research.

Beyond the march, Ffolkes said that written advocacy can also be a useful tool. She noted that lawmakers sometimes use letters they have received in their speeches on the House or Senate floor or have them posted online. “We see that as a victory,” she said.

While garnering public support through media coverage is an effective tool in science advocacy, Erika Shugart explained that connecting directly with people who are not journalists or policymakers is also essential.

Shugart, executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, said that public support for science is vitally important.

“Scientists are fortunate, we have a lot of trust already,” she said, “but that trust is critical.”

Shugart said that talking down to an audience is a mistake scientists sometimes make and a practice that can cloud an important message.

“Don’t approach people as if they are stupid,” she said.

Shugart also said that scientists should avoid jargon and scientific terms when presenting their research. One way a speaker can do this, she said, is to deliver their remarks first to friends and family who do not work in scientific fields and incorporate their feedback in their presentations.

She explained that science communication requires a great deal of practice and emphasized the benefits of workshops offered by organizations like AAAS.

“The best [communicators] know their limits,” Shugart said, “and keep going back for more training.”

Information about science communication workshops and training sessions are available on AAAS’ new advocacy toolkit.

AAAS Associate Director of Government Relations Erin Heath said that the toolkit primarily consists of the organization’s existing resources, gathered together as a “one-stop shop” for would-be advocates.

The collection features a science communication guide that offers tips for writing engaging op-eds, as well as for students hoping to organize science advocacy events on university campuses.

Techniques for finding and supporting a scientific community are also offered, including participating in conversations about science on social media platforms or joining AAAS or other science societies.

The toolkit also provides information and guidance on how scientists and science advocates can make an impact on policy. It includes links through which people can identify and contact their elected officials and information about legislation Congress is considering.

Josh Ettinger, a senior AAAS communications associate who built the toolkit’s website and assisted during the webinar preparations, said the slate of activities the toolkit outlines is sufficiently diverse to accommodate people with varying interests and levels of commitment.

“If you care about science and evidence-based policymaking, there is plenty for you to do,” Ettinger  said.

It is important for scientists and engineers to know that they can impact policymaking beyond the walls of the U.S. Capitol and extend their outreach to state and local policymakers, Heath said. She offered advice to scientists and other science supporters eager to delve into science advocacy in their community.

“Build your network and your level of engagement as best you can, and most importantly, find ways to communicate that are comfortable and meaningful for you,” she said.

Ettinger agreed, and said that the ability to affect policy extends beyond those who work in scientific fields. “Everyone can do something to help stand up for science,” he said.

[Associated image: AdobeStock / AAAS]