Research Your Audience
You’ll need to answer some questions about your intended audience as you plan your science communication. Most importantly, with whom will you seek to communicate? At the federal level, options include elected officials, their personal staff, legislative committee staff, those who work within the Executive Office of the President, and those who work within federal agencies.
Prior to contacting a specific person, make sure you at least know their name and portfolio of responsibilities. (Impersonal calls or emails, or those directed at the wrong person, are rarely returned.) This information can often be gleaned from the policymaker’s website or by calling an office’s main number and asking the receptionist. You might also consider contacting an experienced and trusted boundary organization,1 advocacy organization, or your institution’s government relations office.
Staffers’ email in-boxes are flooded on a daily basis. Thus, as one staffer explained, emails that appear to be auto generated and those addressed "Dear Representative" are often ignored. Emails addressed to a specific staffer are much more likely to be read.
Once you have a meeting scheduled and/or are preparing written materials, you should learn more about the people who will be listening or reading. For science communicators, it is especially helpful to know ahead of time the knowledge level of your likely audience. Investigate their educational background and prior professional experience (e.g., via the office’s official website or a website such as LinkedIn). There are also some general rules of thumb you can follow. For example, in the House of Representatives, personal office staff tend to be policy generalists with social science backgrounds, whereas committee staff often have technical backgrounds and deep expertise in specific topics. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. If you cannot ascertain expertise ahead of time, plan for a lower level of knowledge but have technical details at the ready (or in footnotes).
Work With Others
It can be very helpful to work with others. There are different types of, and reasons for, coordination.
First, consider working with one or two others in your field who have complementary expertise. You can each speak (or write) on your own expertise and, together, cover a lot of ground. You will also be able to more successfully field questions you receive. This said, group visits must be well coordinated - focus on one theme, avoid redundancy, and ensure all participants can speak within the (likely) short time allotted. When visiting Congressional offices, it can be useful to include in your group a person with some policy expertise. We have also been told that including a student can be very beneficial; students can sometimes be better “translators” for nonexperts, and they can convey infectious enthusiasm about your subject matter.
Second, consider working with your organization’s government relations office or with an advocacy or boundary organization.2 Your government relations office can connect you to resources and share tips; they may also have knowledge of ongoing communication efforts in your area that you may wish to join or build on. Advocacy organizations (such as the Sierra Club) and boundary organizations (such as the American Geophysical Union) have considerable experience and extensive connections among policymakers. In fact, one of the things we learned in conducting our study was just how often policymakers turn to these groups for scientific and technical information. Of course, be aware of advocacy and boundary organizations’ reputations and try to learn how they may be perceived by the offices with whom you wish to engage. Even nonpartisan groups can be viewed - sometimes unfairly - as “ideological.”
Consult Available Resources
Even if you are interacting with a staff member, additional research about the office - and the official who heads it - is essential. Is the official a Democrat or Republican? What district do they represent, and what are the district’s salient demographic, economic, and political characteristics? What committees and caucuses are they on and what issues and priorities do they champion? What bills have they sponsored related to the topics you plan to engage with them about? Have they received recognition from organizations in your area of interest? Much of this information can be gleaned from the office’s official website and from news articles.
In addition to this guide, there are many other sources of advice, some of which may be more tailored to your specific area of expertise. We reviewed the websites of over 200 scientific societies affiliated with AAAS to gauge the guidance offered and found that approximately 40 offered at least some advice for communicating with policymakers.3
Standouts offering particularly extensive and high-quality advice include the American Dental Education Association, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, American Physiological Society, American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, American Society of Plant Biologists, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Association for Women in Science, Ecological Society of America, Entomological Society of America, Gerontological Society of America, and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
If you would like to follow up your reading of this guide with a more comprehensive and detailed treatment, we suggest you consult AAAS’ 74-page guide “Working with Congress: A Scientist’s Guide to Policy.”
AAAS also offers several different workshops and seminars on science communication, including some focused on communicating with policymakers.4 Other organizations that offer training in science communication include COMPASS and the Alda Center for Communicating Science.
Practice and Get Feedback
If you have a meeting scheduled, engage in some practice with a colleague or, better, a friend who isn’t well-versed in your field. Memorize a five-minute version of your main points and argument and a one-minute “elevator pitch” (in case time is cut short or an unexpected conversation opportunity arises). Try to anticipate and answer likely questions.
Members of Congress and staff frequently mentioned the importance of succinct memos and presentations from experts. One staff member pointed out that, despite many scientists’ belief that a one- or two-hour meeting is necessary to thoroughly discuss a topic, typical meetings on the Hill are rarely longer than 30 minutes.
If you are preparing a document, it is likewise a good idea to obtain feedback, again preferably from someone you know outside of your area of expertise. Make sure that your written materials do not include spelling or grammatical errors; such errors will undermine your credibility as well as your ability to communicate.