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Early-Career Scientists Engage Virtually With Science Policy Despite Pandemic

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Undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences can contact their members of Congress during the pandemic to advocate for policies that strengthen the scientific enterprise. | MarketingShotz/AdobeStock

With the COVID-19 pandemic having paused scientific research at federal laboratories and universities, members of the scientific community are calling for funding and policies to ensure research can be ramped up again when safe to do so. Undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences can add their voices to advocate for policies that strengthen the scientific enterprise, according to several experts during a AAAS-hosted webinar.

For the past six years, AAAS’ Office of Government Relations convened undergraduate and graduate students in STEM annually in Washington, D.C., for a crash course in science policy making that culminates with visits to the offices of their House and Senate members. The pandemic has postponed the in-person conference, but, through its June 4 webinar, “S&T Policy During COVID-19,” AAAS offered hundreds of participants an overview of the federal policymaking process, the effects of COVID-19 on these processes and the research community and how they can advocate for science.

“Scientists just like you have a voice in the decision-making process,” said Joanne Padrón Carney, director of AAAS’ Office of Government Relations.

Universities successfully sought regulatory flexibility to allow graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and other grant-funded researchers to continue to be paid even as research activities are on hold, said Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities. Yet the provision that allows this is set to expire June 17.

When research can safely resume, grant budgets may no longer contain enough money to pay researchers to complete their projects. That is one reason why universities and scientific associations are calling for at least $26 billion in research relief. The funding would ensure research institutions can repurchase protective personal equipment they had donated to first responders.

Very few members of Congress come from scientific backgrounds or have ever worked off a research grant, Smith said, so “we need scientists to inform them how science works.”

Another key issue universities are facing is the need to ensure the continued presence of international students and researchers. International researchers who returned to their home countries cannot yet return, and new students cannot arrive because in-person interviews for visas are not yet available, said Smith.  

Many universities want to prevent new requirements that would inhibit them from continuing to conduct world-class research, Smith noted.

“The best and brightest students come here because they want to work with the best scientists in the world,” Smith added. “If we have immigration policies that discourage them from coming, I worry about our future and our ability to support the scientific enterprise.”

Students in STEM can make their voices heard on these issues and others in the science policy realm through a number of channels even amid COVID-related closures, panelists said. Despite challenges to engaging virtually, engagement at the federal level is open to students across the country, including those unable to travel to Washington, D.C., said Carney.

Students can set up remote meetings with members of Congress by reaching out to their member’s scheduler, Carney said, offering several suggestions for a more effective meeting: preparing a script ahead of time, having a specific request and following up with the office afterward.

Erin Heath, associate director of AAAS’ Office of Government Relations, suggested that students connect with the government relations office at their universities and with their scientific discipline’s society. Many of these groups are developing new ways to engage with policymakers during pandemic-related shutdowns, including virtual advocacy events like the Society for Neuroscience's monthlong NeuroAdvocate Challenge, or social media campaigns like the National Science Foundation’s #NSFstories effort.

“It’s a good way to get your message out and get it in front of policymakers, especially now that we’re social distancing,” said Heath.

These groups can offer advice about the best time to engage, said Smith. Weighing in at the right moments is crucial – with the House of Representatives having passed a bill in May that includes research relief, now is the time to contact your senators to advocate for this, he said.

Panelists emphasized that engaging in science policy extends beyond congressional outreach and other federal-level engagement, encouraging students to connect with groups like AAAS’ own Local Science Engagement Network and the outside group Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally, which was started by a former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow.

Whether reaching out to federal, state or local officials, panelists offered useful tips for making their message resonate with policymakers. Know your audience, said Sean Gallagher, senior government relations officer at AAAS. Know what they care about, which, for members of Congress, means the activities within their district. He also encouraged students to tell their own stories. While scientific communication is heavily data-driven, to communicate effectively to policymakers requires narrative and context, he added.

“It is more important than ever now to have scientists communicating the importance of their work to help shape the future of the country,” said Gallagher.

Although it can be important to tie one’s message to what is happening in the news, panelists also encouraged participants to think long-term.

While Congress has a long record of bipartisan support for scientific research, “there are quite a few fiscal headwinds facing research funding” beyond the next few years, said Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS. Hourihan said engaging now to lay a long-term foundation will hopefully strengthen the scientific enterprise for years to come.