Have you ever wished there were more scientists involved with politics or politicians who were more informed about science? I certainly have. So when an opportunity to travel to Capitol Hill to get training on how to meet with legislators about climate science- and to actually meet with their offices- presented itself I jumped on it. Policy proposals that impact science are happening around us all the time and the best way for scientists to help ensure that policies are backed by science and support the scientific process is for us to get involved. There are many different programs through various scientific societies that provide training to student scientists and early career researchers on how to communicate their work to policy makers. The specific program I participated in is called Climate Science Day and is coordinated by 12 different scientific societies. The training took place at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in March 2019 and my participation was sponsored by the American Geophysical Union (AGU). The objective is to provide a non-partisan way for us to meet with congressional staff, begin building relationships with offices, and learn about some of the work that is currently being done on the Hill.
In total thirty five early career scientists participated and we were broken into teams of three based on geographic region. My teammates were Logan Brenner from Columbia University and Heather Sussman from SUNY-Albany, and our team leader was Lexi Shultz the Vice President of Public Affairs at AGU. Together we met with 7 congressional offices from Massachusetts and New York. To prepare us for the meetings we had a webinar and informational packet to go through in advance of the trip. These materials covered how Congress is structured, what the differences are between the Senate and the House of Representatives and how that impacts the work each side does, what the important committees relating to climate change are, and how to effectively communicate during meetings. They also emphasized the unified ask of “support, communicate, and use in policy discussions and decisions the scientific community’s consensus on climate science.” When we arrived in DC we had one day to attend a training at AAAS, meet our teammates, and prepare our materials for the next day’s congressional visits.
We had a limited time to prepare for our meetings. We all arrived the day before the meetings were to take place and attended a training at AAAS where we learned how to conduct a congressional visit, heard from a panel of staffers, and met our teammates and team leaders. To have a successful meeting you need to be knowledgeable about who you are talking to. Meetings rarely happen with the legislators themselves, instead they are usually with congressional staffers. The staffers are usually people with scientific backgrounds and occasionally they are themselves early career scientists interning as fellows sponsored by various professional organizations to learn more about the connections between science and policy. They are also very important to getting things done on Capitol Hill and are instrumental in carrying out the work that happens in the offices. Their time is extremely valuable and it is important to speak to them as though they are highly knowledgeable about these topics- because they are!- and to express your gratitude for their time. My three favorite staffers we met with were all fellows and had backgrounds in teaching, solar development, and marine biology!
The most valuable part of the training was the breakout sessions with our teams to decide what our specific asks were from each office and who would lead each meeting. Having a specific ask is very important as this is the action step you are hoping to convince your representative to take. The ask varies based on what you think your member of Congress is likely to want to do and what actions they have taken in the past. For members who are less engaged on climate issues asks should revolve around getting them to commit to becoming more involved. For us one of the offices we met with was of a Rep Katko (R-NY-24). We noticed in looking through the committees he was on that he was the only member of the New York delegation not on a specific environmental committee. We chose our ask for that office to be for him to join that committee. In the meeting at that office we spoke to his staffer about environmental issues that are a concern in his district, how climate change can exacerbate them, and how his work in joining this committee could benefit his constituents. For congressional members who are already active on climate issues we first thanked them for being leaders on such a pressing issue and then asked of them to go a bit farther, for instance by giving a floor speech on recent climate publications put out by government scientists such as the Fourth National Climate Assessment, or co-sponsoring a piece of upcoming environmental legislation. For members in our own local districts, we included in our asks invitations for them to come visit our research labs and perhaps do a public event with us to bring light to scientific work on global issues happening in their local districts and policy work they are doing to advance solutions.
On the day of the meetings we donned our business attire and convened on Capitol Hill. Logan and Heather each led two of the four meetings with the NY offices and I led the three meetings with MA offices. First up was Rep. Clark of MA’s 5th congressional district. It went very well and was the perfect meeting to ease us into the day. We met with a staffer who was a fellow with a background in education. She was eager to hear about our work and said Rep. Clark would likely be happy to complete our ask of giving a floor speech. One of the highlights of our day was meeting with Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY-6) who we requested join SEEC, the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, chaired by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY-20) which is one of the most active and effective congressional committees on environmental matters. Later in the day we met with Rep. Tonko’s office and they mentioned that they had just received a call from Rep. Meng asking to join his committee! This was a huge win for us as it meant that Rep. Meng had already acted on our ask just an hour or so after meeting with her office. Another highlight of the day was meeting with the Legislative Assistant for Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY-13). He was very interested in connections between social justice and climate change and how to improve the health and wellbeing of the people in his community, while providing them with good jobs, and working to combat climate change all at once. We ended the day at MA Senator Markey’s office where we met with two staffers who were fellows just out of graduate school- one was a marine biologist and the other worked on solar development and sustainability. We had a great conversation on scientists and scientific data that are being used to craft legislation for the Green New Deal.
The two days on Capitol Hill were a whirlwind of meeting new people and learning how scientists and policy makers can work together to make substantive change. If you want to get involved in communicating with your legislators, check with the scientific societies you are a member of to see if they have trainings coming up. You can also reach out on your own to your local legislators and offer your expertise and knowledge for policy work they are currently doing. In addition if you ever find yourself in Washington DC you can also ask for a meeting yourself if you would like to share your science and find ways your work and expertise can benefit their offices. With so much work needed in developing concrete actions that will help implement a global transition to a climate friendly world we will need everyone getting involved and offering to help in any way they can. You have so much to offer, so get out there and start making it happen!