From the Science Student Council

"Gradvocacy" for science-oriented students

Become familiar with the ins and outs of advocacy for psychological science and funding.

By Rachel Manes

As psychology graduate students, we are well aware that psychological science is the backbone that supports solutions to many local and national problems. But being a psychological scientist should not simply involve working toward these solutions. It is, in fact, our responsibility to communicate how we are contributing to these solutions and provide a rationale for why our efforts should be furthered. This is where advocacy among graduate students, or “gradvocacy” if you will, can play a vital role. 

Engaging in advocacy is imperative as policy and funding decisions have a huge impact on the survival of research programs (consider, for example, the impact of sequestration). When policy makers are informed about the value of behavioral sciences they have the tools to make more informed decisions. Because we specialize in research topics relevant to health, education, the economy, social issues and national security, we are in a unique position to speak about the importance of research — especially to those who might not yet comprehend the far-reaching effects of our work.

On April 5, 2013, members of the the Science Student Council (SSC) visited offices of the House of Representatives to advocate for federal funding of research within many areas of psychological science, particularly at the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. In the morning we participated in a training session held by the Government Relations Office of the American Psychological Association's Science Directorate. New advocates are often filled with doubts such as “I won’t make a difference,” “I don’t know what to say,” or “I feel intimidated.” The good news is that a training session can help relieve these doubts by guiding you in formulating your message and providing you the opportunity to practice delivering it. 

An effective visit starts not in the congressional office but during the preparatory phase with the composition of a few clear take-home points. These questions might help you get started with crafting it: 

  • What message do you wish to communicate during the visit? 
  • What is your goal? 
  • Who has the authority to make your goal a reality? 
  • What are next steps to making your goal a reality? 
Once you’ve honed your points and practiced communicating them, it’s time to make your gradvocacy visit. 

Arriving at the congressional office early is key to ensuring that you are on time and not flustered once the meeting begins. Be flexible and understand that there could be last minute changes regarding the start time of the meeting. Most likely you will meet with a staff person, not the representative or senator, but you can be sure that staffers will share your message with their boss. 

Once the meeting begins, politely introduce yourself as “a graduate student studying psychology.” The first point to communicate is how your research makes a contribution in such areas as public health, education, workplace productivity, national security and/or the economic health of your local district or state. Building on your own work, you can describe how particular areas of psychological science are creating opportunities for improving society at both local and national levels. Next, explain why stable funding for science is important for the scientific workforce, the local economy, your university, the district’s constituents and the nation. It may also be helpful to remind the staff person that psychology is a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) discipline. 

After expressing your concerns and allowing for dialogue, it is productive to ask follow up questions that may have not yet been addressed: 

  • What are the representative/senator's priorities with regard to science funding? 
  • Which science issues are important to the representative/senator? 
  • What do you think the representative/senator can do to protect research funding? 
  • What do you think is going to happen to science funding? 
Remember to say thank you at the conclusion of the meeting. Leave a one page briefing sheet that summarizes your major points. Follow up with an email to the office staff member that restates your message and offers assistance to the legislative office in your area of research.

The folks in the Science Directorate Government Relations Office offered some tips that certainly rang true during the actual visit. First off, expect the meeting to be brief, focused and rather one-sided in the sense that often you are the communicator and the office staff member is the listener. Yet, our gradvocacy efforts do matter because they will be reported to the representative or senator — that is, after all, the job of the staff member. My visit was congenial and lasted approximately 15 minutes. When I could not answer the staff member’s questions, I offered to get back to the office with further information. 

Other tips that helped me succeed were knowing my representative’s committee assignments and priority issues before visiting, offering examples from the local district that supported my message and staying focused on communicating this message throughout the meeting. It was also essential to steer clear of communicating the wrong message. For example, I did not bring up other votes or political stances with which I disagree, I did not say what else to cut in order to keep money in the budget for psychological science, and I certainly tried my best not to use scientific jargon or spend time describing my research methods.  

There are many resources that can help you get started with meeting your representative/senator or a member of his or her staff. Many of the tips mentioned above are further detailed in a webinar jointly sponsored by the American Psychological Association and Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. To learn more about how to prepare for a meeting, consult APA’s Psychologist’s Guide to Federal Advocacy and the Public Policy Advocacy Network. Additional information on how to take action and participate in advocacy without visiting the district office can also be found online on the APA Science Directorate’s Government Relations Office website. Subscribing to APA’s Science Policy Insider News is also a great way to stay up-to-date with periodic overviews of critical science policy issues. The Government Relations Office will continue to conduct small focused trainings and plans to add more online tools to reach more psychologists interested in advocacy and gradvocacy.

Rachel ManesRachel Manes is the developmental psychology representative on the APA Science Student Council and serves as the SSC's chair. She is currently a doctoral candidate at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. 
See the APA Science Student Council website for more information about its members and activities.