Science Leadership Conference

In the spring of 2007, with a bill in the wings that would authorize doubling the National Science Foundation's (NSF) budget, two congressmen amended the bill to block funding from certain lines of research that Congress deemed "silly," including several already-funded behavioral science studies. In essence, the amendments proposed that Congress could do an end run around NSF's peer-review system. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), a clinical psychologist, convinced lawmakers of the peer-review system's merits and persuaded Congress to shoot down the amendments.

The scene should serve as a wake-up call to scientists that they need to be vigilant when legislation threatens science, said Steven Breckler, PhD, APA's executive director for science.

"Whenever Congress tries to strip a grant of its funding, we take that as a threat to peer review," Breckler said. Peer review is an important step in the scientific process, he said, and it's important that judgment remain in the hands of a knowledgeable party like the NSF.

After such a close funding call, APA chose "Adventures in Advocacy" for the theme of its third annual Science Leadership Conference (SciLC), held Oct. 13-15 in Washington, D.C. For three days, 100 of APA's scientist members learned how they can affect decisions made about science on Capitol Hill. The take-home message: Personalize your message, and lawmakers will respond.

Policy-making 101

The conference opened with a crash course for attendees on lawmaking and tips on how to make their case to legislators and staff using two approaches: "the facts and just the facts"-style arguments or individual stories to personalize the message. Attendees then took turns role-playing congressman and advocate. Brenda Rapp, PhD, a Johns Hopkins University cognitive scientist who studies language, shared a story on how her research changed a life that attendees cited throughout the training day: While working with an elderly stroke victim who was experiencing a severe language breakdown, Rapp encouraged him to communicate by writing. Within weeks, the man was able to e-mail his children--a feat that had seemed impossible after his stroke. Rapp shared her story the next day when she and other attendees met with their members of Congress or their staffs to argue for increased science funding.

The conference coincided with a congressional debate over an appropriations bill that would increase funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Both the Senate and House of Representatives introduced versions that would increase NIH funding, but the Senate version was particularly generous. APA wanted the conference attendees to encourage members of Congress to vote for the Senate's version of the bill.

What Rapp learned at the preparatory workshops rang true, she said. Some staffers were touched by her anecdote, while others seemed to respond better to straight facts and figures. Fellow SciLC attendee Michael Edwards, PhD, an Ohio State University researcher, said the training workshops took the intimidation out of visiting Capitol Hill and he will be more involved with advocacy efforts now.

"Having done this now, I wouldn't hesitate to do it again," said Edwards.

Indeed, getting scientists such as Edwards and Rapp comfortable with communicating on the Hill is exactly the point, Breckler said. The major goal for the conference was to train scientists to become actively involved in the issues that affect them and the rest of the research community. At the meeting's close, Breckler asked attendees to share what they learned with colleagues back home.

"We want scientists to realize they can do more than sit back and say, 'Oh, darn, NSF's budget is only going up one percent,'" Breckler said. "You actually have the power to do something about that."