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By Lawrence S.B. Goldstein, University of California, San Diego. Dr. Goldstein has been a long time Member of the CLS’s Congressional Liaison Committee.
Scientists spend much of their time in the lab, doing research, writing grants, drafting papers, serving as mentors, giving presentations/seminars, and performing numerous other duties necessary to advance science. But scientists need to add one more responsibility — that of being a citizen scientist. Scientific citizenship encompasses the responsibility of the community of scientists to help the public and elected officials understand the impact of research on human health.
Biomedical research and its applications are having an unprecedented impact on our world and society. The issues raised are thought-provoking and controversial, not only among scientists, but even more so to the public who greet each new breakthrough with equal parts wonder, fear, hope, and misunderstanding. How can our non-scientist friends and lawmakers sort through the scientific debates, information, and ideas without specialized training? More important, how can we help them to make wise and informed decisions about how to proceed and where to invest valuable resources?
I believe that a big part of the answer is us. As professional scientists we have a special role to play in educating the public about what we and our colleagues do, and its potential impact and value. While many bemoan the state of scientific understanding at large, we must hold ourselves partially responsible. Who else can, or will, explain what we do, why it has value, and what its possible uses and implications may be?
There are three principles that define why it makes sense for all practicing scientists to devote some personal effort to educating the public and our lawmakers about the science that they conduct. These are the three R’s.
Responsibility, Reputation, and Reward.
Responsibility. We each have a responsibility to the scientific community to help the public understand what we do, and to help build and maintain support for scientific research and education. In addition, we have a responsibility to the non-scientific public to explain why what we do has value if we expect them to pay for it either with tax dollars or charitable donations. Finally, we have a responsibility to explain how the results of our research might be used, particularly when controversial discoveries are unleashed on a sometimes unsuspecting public.
Reputation. Each of us, regardless of level of seniority, has a special reputation as an active scientist based on our experience and education. Thus, we all carry an earned respect and the benefit of the doubt on many science issues. For example, many congressional offices have never talked to a scientist and many staffers and members have never met one. I continue, however, to be surprised and gratified by the welcome and respect we receive when we meet with these non-scientists. In addition, each of us helps demonstrate that we are not all mad scientists or Dr. Frankensteins, that we have children and families, lives and pursuits not so dissimilar from our neighbors, and that we approach science with restraint and ethical understanding. Finally, all of us have special expertise, not only about our precise focus area, but also about much of biology in general, which we can use to inform and educate.
Reward. There are many individual rewards to involvement in science policy and public education. First, is the satisfaction of having a personal impact on our lawmakers’ opinions and votes. Second is the realization that our special knowledge and viewpoint can make a difference in society. For example, if you write an op-ed, you will be surprised at your neighbors’ responses. They will appreciate it, you, and your profession. Finally, there is the impact on our own science. My experience has been that preparing myself to discuss issues that are current, e.g., genetically modified organisms, stem cells, etc. has had a positive impact on my own research and teaching. It helps me to stay current with related areas, to think about concerns of the public at large, and to think more broadly about how my basic research could be used to help understand human disease. Such meetings with non-experts have also sharpened my teaching and speaking skills as I have learned how to translate my specialized knowledge into generally accessible concepts.
There are also some persistent myths about advocacy for biomedical research and science public policy. For example, sometimes, when science advocacy comes up in conversation with some of my friends and colleagues, the concern is expressed that advocating for science has a negative impact on other priorities for tax dollars such as education or the environment. But, I think it is a mistake to assume that it is always a zero sum game. Also, you must remember that you have specialized knowledge of scientific programs, but not necessarily about other social programs. These other programs have their own expert advocates. Advocating for science is not advocating against other programs and it is not taken that way. Our representatives are getting input from other sources, and it is their job to try to weigh the relative merits to society of each.
I sometimes hear the statement that scientific advocacy must take a lot of time. But it needn’t. One or two letters per year advocating for a particular position on funding or policy, the periodic thank you letter for supporting sound science policy, or a yearly congressional visit, especially in your home district, doesn’t take that much time. In addition, if you think about how much time it takes to write a grant, doesn’t it make sense to spend a little bit of time helping to make sure that funds continue to be available? Finally, there are 435 congressional districts and 100 senators; each of us has one congressperson and two senators who we can inform and engage as constituents. Thus, if we each do a little, our impact can be broad-based and extensive.
I have also heard concerns on the order of: “I’m not senior enough or famous enough,” or, “I’m only a junior faculty member, a postdoc, a student”. But, we all vote, we all have the right of free speech, and congressional offices are always happy to hear from constituents with special knowledge or experience. A young graduate student generally has more scientific expertise than most congressional staffers or members. It is quite valuable if they talk about what they know in a letter or Congressional visit, why they are excited about what they do, and why it might be useful, even in the long-term. A sense of excitement about science can be infectious-use it!
The other thing to remember is that most congressional offices are small, and that staff have great influence. A comparison to a typical medium-sized lab is not off the mark. Think of the congressperson as a PI, with a staff of eight to ten young, smart, well-educated people comparable in age to graduate students and postdocs. The congressperson sets general policy and direction, vets the final language of bills and statements, but, the staff often write drafts, and have input into final language. When you write or appear, you are data! Your views, even if transmitted first to staff, inform the general policy that the office and member will set. In addition, staff can be incredibly valuable, are easy to establish a long-term relationship with, and are often friendly, bright, knowledgeable people trying to do a good job in wildly chaotic circumstances. Finally, 10-20 letters on one subject from informed constituents are noticed-particularly if they are thoughtful, brief, and to the point.
What if your congressperson is not on one of the “right” committees such as Appropriations? That could be true today, but think long-term. Committee assignments change as members retire or are defeated, or the majority control of committees shifts. My own congressman was not originally on the Appropriations subcommittee that handles the NIH, but he is now, and several years of education by me and my colleagues about the value of biomedical research has paid off. He has gone from thinking that the NIH could possibly be privatized to thinking that it is a valuable government agency.
Finally, people sometimes say “my congressman is too liberal, too conservative, already supportive,” etc. In fact, Congressional service is a daily process of weighing costs and benefits of different programs and proposed laws. Issues and votes on cloning, stem cells, genetically modified organisms, and funding happen every year, and the fiscal tradeoffs and issues are shifting as well. Reminding your elected representatives that they have many constituents who care about biomedical research and science is always helpful.
How to get the biggest bang for your time? There are many simple and non time-consuming things you can do: join the Congressional Liaison Committee (www.jscpp.org), take personal action and write a letter, write an op-ed, make a phone call or pay a visit when in Washington or at home during a Congressional recess. Don’t be afraid-the road out of the ivory tower is fascinating and rewarding, and your efforts will help all of us.