Taking Science to Capitol Hill

AAAS workshop explores opportunities—and challenges—in communicating science for policy in Congress.

By Karen Akerlof, 2017-2018 AAAS Visiting Scholar and 2016-17 Legislative Branch Fellow sponsored by AGU

STPF alumna fellow Karen Akerlof leads participants through a workshop exercise.

Representatives of some of Washington’s largest science organizations met with social science researchers for a daylong workshop on October 13 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) headquarters to discuss current opportunities and challenges in connecting science with policymaking processes in Congress. Researchers pointed to decreasing congressional institutional capacity as a decades-long trend that has generated bipartisan concern. Yet, according to both government relations and science policy experts, opportunities remain to successfully recognize the value of scientific research even in this constrained environment.

Declining capacity in Congress

Molly Reynolds, a Brookings fellow in governance studies, said a number of indicators suggest that congressional capacity to process information has continued to drop even after precipitous declines following the Republican takeover of the House and Senate in the 1994 elections. With the importance of committees—and the number of committee hearings—waning, the number of staff who support congressional inquiry has also been shrinking, according to Brookings data. In 1995, the Office of Technology Assessment was eliminated and other support organization staff were significantly downsized. Since then, the total number of employees housed within Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office has continued to decrease, said Reynolds. When staff for members of Congress need non-partisan information, these organizations often are the first ones they call.

If the staff who respond to policy aides’ requests for information have shrunk in number over time, so has the percentage of congressional staff responsible for making evidence-based legislative recommendations to their boss. The division of personnel between Washington, DC and state offices has been shifting since the 1980s. Indeed, the percentage of staff located in state and district offices—where staff primarily tend to constituent concerns—has grown at the expense of DC-based policy expertise. In 1981, 26 percent of Senate and 36 percent of House office staff were located in home district offices. By 2015, closer to half of staff were located in district offices: 43% of Senate and 47% of House office employees.

 

More interest groups—and easier communication—strain Congressional capacity 

The reduced capacity of Congress to process policy-relevant information doesn’t mean external communication with the Senate and House has slowed, said Congressional Management Foundation Director of Strategic Initiatives Kathy Goldschmidt. In fact, the opposite is true. The number of national interest groups has increased, as have their tools to connect their supporters with Congress, in what Goldschmidt calls “one-click advocacy.” Between 2002 and 2010, constituent mail in 10 Senate and House offices increased an average of more than 500%. Dramatic changes in communication technology have made it easier than ever to contact members of Congress and their staff, but the technology within the House and Senate hasn’t kept pace. In 2016, the foundation found that only six percent of senior House and Senate staff were “very satisfied” with the adequacy of their technological infrastructure. “Congress is listening so hard it is going deaf,” Goldschmidt stated.

From communication of research to “use”

Getting the ear of Congress is difficult enough, but seeking to ensure the information is used by policymakers adds another layer of problem complexity. “If you want to change the world, you have to understand what you’re changing first,” said Maria Carmen Lemos, professor and associate dean for research at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. She discussed the factors that diminish or expand the gap in usable scientific information, and what it takes to find a place in the middle, between the people who want information and those who produce it. She warned that new information does not necessarily change people’s minds, especially if it doesn’t fit within the decision routines they find comfortable. However, when scientists and policymakers engage in co-production of knowledge, invest in interactions, and understand knowledge needs and decision contexts, these gaps can diminish.

As John Hird, Professor and Dean of the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst, emphasized, it isn’t just a supply side problem, there has to be demand for scientific information from policymakers. Using science in the analysis of policy alternatives and driving policy decisions are the most commonly imagined forms of Congressional “use,” but research shows they are not the most common form. Most of the time, Congress uses science strategically to bolster arguments or prior policy positions. While it might not be what scientists are expecting, members of the workshop pointed out that it can mean broader public exposure to issues and new ideas.

Programs that bridge the gap

If the processes of making science usable for policy (or politics) sound like a lot of work for scientists who may still be striving to make tenure, they can be, which is why organizations that work in the middle ground between researchers and policymakers—e.g. “boundary organizations”—can play such an important role, many of the workshop participants reported. The House and Senate are composed of 535 small businesses each with their own issue priorities, office culture, level of staff autonomy, access to resources, re-election concerns, party seniority, committee assignments, strength of political ideology, and stakeholder and constituent relationships. Strategizing which people and offices to contact for any specific issue is what government relations and public affairs staff do best at organizations like American Geophysical Union (AGU), said Lexi Shultz, AGU vice president of public affairs. “It’s an art,” agreed AAAS Visiting Scholar Kei Koizumi.

In the face of Congress’s many institutional challenges, scientific member organizations like AAAS say their role is in increasing the capacity of the research community to participate in policy discussions and connecting scientists with policymakers in the hopes of changing policy. The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program, started just after the Office of Technology Assessment was formed, is one of the most significant programs historically that trains scientists in science policy and places them in positions within the federal government, said STPF Director Jennifer Pearl (2002-03 Executive Branch Fellow). Within large-scale organizational and coalition strategies for influencing policy, the importance of scientists with an understanding of the legislative branch—like the STPF Congressional fellows—cannot be understated. There remains an important need for people in DC who are “bilingual” in the languages of policy and science, said Koizumi, to bridge the gap.