When members of Congress returned to their home districts last month for a brief recess from legislative activity in Washington, DC, SfN members across the country were there to greet them and advocate on behalf of neuroscience.
Demonstrating the power of uniting neuroscientists, SfN members in New York City coordinated a series of eight in-district meetings with both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. The leaders of BraiNY, SfN’s Greater NYC Chapter, led the effort to organize the Regional Hill Day to communicate the benefits of neuroscience research to the local community and the importance of robust, consistent funding for this research.
“Our intention for all of the meetings was to open a line of communication with our members of Congress throughout the city,” said Abigail Kalmbach, research scientist of developmental neuroscience at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University and founder of the advocacy arm of BraiNY. “We wanted to impart the importance of government-sponsored research, not only for the advancement of science and health, but as a driver of the local economy and science education.”
In advance of the meetings, BraiNY leaders prepared scientists to tailor their message for each member of Congress. Kalmbach, for example, led two in-person training sessions to improve participants’ confidence and distributed slides to those who could not attend to ensure all participants were prepared.
SfN Government and Public Affairs Committee member and BraiNY leader Haung “Ho” Yu recommended neuroscientists find a way to make a personal connection with their member of Congress. “Connecting with legislators may require additional background research, but it is an effective strategy to garner support for neuroscience research,” he said. For instance, if your member of Congress has a connection to the disease you study, they are likely personally invested in understanding how basic scientific research translates to improved patient outcomes.
Meeting with legislators and their staff can seem intimidating, which is why it’s important for neuroscientists to be prepared with their “asks,” or what they want their legislators to do. SfN members meeting with lawmakers for the first time should remember that while these events are crucial to ensuring the future of science, they’re also much less intimidating than one might expect.
“I was nervous beforehand, but meeting with staff was simple and much more relaxed than I was expecting,” said Will Adler, SfN Early Career Policy Ambassador and PhD Candidate at NYU who led the charge on the in-person meeting with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) staff. “Remember, you’re there to have a conversation about the work that you do. Just be sure to be prepared with a concrete ‘ask’, like releasing the BRAIN Initiative funding for FY18.”
It’s also important to prepare “asks” for when members of Congress already support the level of funding you’re seeking. Neuroscientists can encourage their legislators to join the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus in the House or the NIH Caucus in the Senate, invite them to go on lab tour to see firsthand the work they are funding, or ask for their help in organizing neuroscience-focused activities in their district. Scientists can also encourage STEM instruction earlier in the education process.
The New York meeting organizers also emphasized the importance of offering to serve as a resource for the member of Congress. Provide tangible information about the brain, as well as the impact of neuroscience research, that lawmakers can use to inform their decision-making on legislative matters.
“Members of Congress sympathetic to science will not and cannot speak up for scientists unless they hear from us,” Kalmbach said. “They might need data and information regarding the importance of science and science funding for material for their speeches. We should offer to be of use to them, but not to wait by the phone — we should email and tweet at our members of Congress information that they can use before big votes.”
While many members of Congress support NIH funding, they have many demands on their agenda. “If scientists don’t visibly demonstrate the need for increased funding, then we can’t expect it,” Adler said.
“Even if they support biomedical funding in general, they will not push for its expansion — or even existence — unless they know that their constituents prioritize it,” Kalmbach agreed. “It’s our responsibility as scientists to show them the value of neuroscience in society.”
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