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Making the Case for Research on Zoom: Report from a Successful Virtual Hill Day

How are research advocates making their case on Capitol Hill during COVID-19? I had the opportunity to find out recently when the Washington Fellows of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) visited congressional offices – virtually. I served as a mentor to a group of early career scientists participating in the ASPET Hill Day for the first time. Our goals were two-fold: to champion NIH and NSF funding by asking congressional offices to sign Dear Colleague Letters, and to discuss the essential use of animals in biomedical research in order to develop therapies for improving human and veterinary health.

Normally, fellows would be in Washington, DC, for a two-day experience. The first day would consist of an Advocacy Training Conference in which fellows would attend lectures on topics such as how to conduct successful Hill meetings, how to talk to legislators about animal research, and how to develop their meeting strategies. A group dinner would follow with previous Washington Fellows who would be serving as Hill guides. On the second day, fellows would spend time on the Hill dashing between congressional office buildings and stopping for photo opportunities in front of the Capitol Building.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, training and meetings were conducted virtually this year. Tyler Lamb, ASPET’s Senior Manager of Government Affairs and Science Policy, hosted a series of science policy lectures leading up to the virtual Advocacy Training Conference. At this conference, guest speakers from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) and the Chief of Staff of a South Carolina representative joined Tyler in providing information and advice to help the Washington Fellows develop their meeting strategies.

As a previous Washington Fellow, my role for Hill Day was to serve as a Hill guide. My responsibilities were to serve as a resource for the fellows, to help develop pitches to explain their research to non-scientists, and to supplement their congressional office conversations with additional information as needed. 

Instead of navigating busy security lines and walking down long hallways, my fellows and I calmly sat at our desks and attended meetings by clicking through calendar invites. The ability to have a prepared script and additional information displayed side by side with Zoom windows reduced some of the nervousness from the first few meetings of the day, allowing us to keep our messages and asks consistent and concise.

From meeting to meeting, the fellows gained confidence in their ability to effectively communicate their research and to respond to questions and comments from staffers.

The responses from each congressional office were positive and even surprised one of my fellows. The strong bipartisan support for biomedical research was refreshing to hear throughout the day. I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to hear that several offices have been engaged in conversations on the use of animals in biomedical research. Previous Hill visits required more discussion with legislative offices on this topic, but some of the staffers we spoke to showed incredible understanding of the valuable role that animals play in research. 

I began Hill Day with an open mind, not knowing how virtual meetings would compare to in-person ones. The outcomes exceeded my expectations. I was proud of how my fellows had rapidly developed their advocacy skills in one day. While some aspects of Hill Day can’t be captured virtually, we accomplished our goal, which was to engage with congressional offices on the value of supporting biomedical research.

ASPET is a 4000 member society that represents pharmacologists in academia, government, industry, and other areas. ASPET’s Washington Fellows program provides opportunities for graduate students, postdocs, and early career scientists in pharmacology to learn about science policy and engage in conversations with lawmakers through a visit to Capitol Hill. Visit this link to learn more about and apply to be an ASPET Washington Fellow. Note: This program is only open to ASPET members. If you are not an ASPET member, be sure to ask your scientific society about how to get involved with their Hill Days or plan your own visit.

Dr. Sophia Kaska is the Manager of Science Initiatives and Outreach at Research!America and is a member of ASPET’s Science Policy Committee. She completed postdoctoral research in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Kentucky and her doctoral work in Pharmacology and Toxicology and Environmental Toxicology at Michigan State University.