Communicating with Policy Makers: Becoming a Science Resource
Congressional aides typically work on one or more broad issues, such as environment or agriculture, and are often young with relatively little formal education on the subject matter. Still, they are expected to be the office expert on the issue at hand, and often rely on short, prepared briefs for their information. Thus, a constituent-scientist who is an expert on a specific aspect of their issue and is willing to serve as an information resource to the congressional office can be a very valuable asset.
If you are interested in getting more involved, offering to be a resource for the office of your representative and/or senator(s) could be a rewarding experience. Consider emailing the environmental legislative aide of your target office and informing her/him of your expertise and willingness to act as a resource on climate change science, impacts, and/or solutions issues. In most cases, the aide who focuses on environmental issues will be very thankful to have a scientist from their district to contact when questions arise.
Alternatively, consider forming a resource group with experts from your institution. Then, contact the office of your target (if there are two or more districts within the local area, you can contact the representatives of each of them), informing the office of your group and its interest in being a resource for the representative's office.
- Get Some Background. You likely will only be able to be an effective resource for one office. Which one should you target first? To figure this out, you will need to conduct some basic research. Among the questions you should ask are:
(i) do you have an “in” with the office? If you know of someone that is trusted by the staff of one of your legislators, consider approaching that person and asking him/her to connect you with the legislator’s staff;
(ii) on which committees (and subcommittees) do your legislators serve? If one is on a committee related to your main interest, then you may wish to focus on him/her first;
(iii) who’s the junior legislator? The more senior a legislator, the more staff he/she will have and the less they will rely on outside resources. Consider working with your junior legislator, who is likely to be more resource constrained (and will likely be an influential figure for years to come).
- Send a letter. Call the local office and ask for the names of the legislative assistant for your target issue. Next, mail a letter noting your expertise and interest in acting as a resource on your issue for the office. Request a time to speak with the individual about your interest.
- Follow-up by phone. Ten days after mailing the letter, call the aide and confirm his or her receipt of the note. Ask when he or she will have some time to discuss your request over the phone.
- Keep the office informed of science developments. The parameters of your relationship will largely be driven by the requirements of the aide you are assisting. You should seek to keep the aide informed of important developments and clearly explain why the developments are important. However, you need to be conscious not to overwhelm the aide and be mindful of other obligations and workload demands he/she might have.