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The Do’s and Don’ts of Advocacy for Researchers  

Advocacy is your opportunity to educate elected officials on why they should care about science and research. Your experience as a researcher is incredibly meaningful and Congressional representatives value your perspectives on the work being done in the state or district they represent. (NOTE: you can look up your Representatives on congress.gov.) However, when working as a researcher there are some important considerations and preparations to make before engaging directly with your Representatives.  

DO: Reach out to your institution’s government or federal affairs office first.  

DO NOT: Accidently misrepresent yourself or your institution. 

Perhaps the most important action to take is to talk with the government relations staff at your institution and learn how you might work with them before reaching out on your own.  

The staff in these offices are eager to help you engage! Often, they have ongoing relationships with the Representatives for your institution’s state and/or district and will be able to help you contact them and set up meetings or perhaps even a visit to your lab or clinical center. They are also open to hearing your own perspectives on possible advocacy actions they may not be doing already and to work with you on them.  

Government affairs staff are there to help you craft the perfect talking points on your work and the value of research funding before going into any meetings. They will be able to advise you on the best way to represent yourself and the institution you work for. They want to help you as much as possible!  

DO: Plan and practice what you are going to say in meetings with Congressional offices.  

DO NOT: Engage Congressional offices without planned talking points.  

The key to successful advocacy is to know your ‘ask’ (what are you trying to achieve in meeting with this Representative?) and supporting talking points (What can you say to best make the case for research funding?) before entering any meeting. This involves conducting some preliminary background research on your audience and finding common ground. Below we have provided a guide for having quick meetings with Congressional offices to help you get started.  

DO: Bring educational materials to meetings with Congressional offices.  

DO NOT: Talk the entire time in a meeting with a Congressional staffer.  

In many cases you will only have 10-15 minutes of a Congressional staffer’s time, and you want to ensure there is plenty of time for you to succinctly deliver your own talking points while also allowing the staffer to get to know you and communicate their office’s priorities.  

To achieve a nice balance in the conversation, bringing “leave behind” information for the staffer with you is helpful. Further, Congressional office staff take many constituent meetings so leaving them with a concise document that reinforces your main arguments and asks will help them stay salient well after the meeting is over.  

If you are advocating on behalf of NIH research funding, Research!America has a sample template you can follow to outline the significance of NIH funding in a Representative’s state or district. You may also find it helpful to share our fact sheet that explains the NIH’s mission, work, and significance.  

With all this in mind, the following is a quick guide to meeting with your Representative’s office.  

Quick Guide to Meeting with Congressional Staff

NOTE: This guide is shaped around asking for increased NIH funding, but the script is editable and can easily be adapted for another research agency or funding source. 

How to secure a meeting with staff of a member of the House or Senate: 

  1. First reach out to your institution’s government or federal affairs office. This is an important first step to advocating as a researcher to ensure you do not misrepresent your institution. The office is also likely to help you with the following steps to arrange the meeting, so you don’t have to!  
  2. Focus on your or your institution’s Representative in the House and your two Senators. It is difficult to secure meetings if you are not a constituent of the member’s district or state. Note that the location of the institution your research is conducted in likely differs from your own personal state and/or district representation. Representatives are most interested in research happening in their state or district. 
  3. If your institution does not have a government affairs office or they have asked you to arrange the meeting, contact the Washington, DC office of the member. Phone numbers and links to member pages are in the House and Senate directories.
  4. Ask to speak with the staff person who handles funding for the National Institutes of Health, note that you are a constituent and hope to arrange a brief virtual or in person (if you will be in D.C.) meeting about NIH funding.
  5. If you are not put through to a staff member or given an email address for a staff member that enables you to arrange a meeting, email Erin Darbouze ([email protected]) from Research!America and we’ll help come up with a plan B! 

Plan for a 10–15-minute meeting: 

With a few exceptions, meetings with members of Congress or staff are 15 minutes on the outside, 10 minutes ideally (from the staffer’s perspective) — and could be even less, depending on what is all going on that day. This means you need to have a 1–2-minute elevator pitch prepared for your ‘ask’, because you’ll need the rest of the time to begin forming an authentic connection with the staff member(s) with whom you are meeting. 

Two key goals for meetings with congressional staff: 

  1. Form an authentic connection with the staffer. 
    • So, they can trust the information you provide is factual and the asks you are making are reasonable. 
    • So, they will consider you a resource when relevant issues arise. 
  2. Successfully make the case for the ‘ask’ that led you to arrange the meeting.  

The best meetings begin with a little self-reflection and a little homework: 

  1. Self-reflection: In the case of NIH funding, ask yourself why exactly you believe NIH funding should grow. Likely as a researcher you have firsthand experience working under NIH grant funding or at an institution that receives NIH research funding. That should be central to your conversation. Here are some thought starters: 
    • Can you connect the dots between your research and national security, economic growth, and competitiveness, and/or the day-to-day wellbeing of your friends and neighbors? 
    • Is there a patient or personal story you can share? 
  2. Homework:  
    • How much research funding flows into the state (and/or district) of this member of Congress, and what is the economic impact of those dollars? Build out our NIH funding template as a leave behind. This will help you find how much NIH funding is in your state or district. Print out your completed leave behind and take it with you to the office. 
    • Which of these public opinion survey findings resonates most with you? Using survey results to underscore support for research funding is a tried-and-true way of making a Hill meeting memorable and impactful.
    • If your research is focused or has applications for a particular disease, look for statistics about the number of people with that disease in your state or other local statistics; if it’s a rare disease, look for national or global statistics. The CDC Health Topics page is a particularly useful resource for this kind of data.
    • Think through how you might serve as a resource to the office going forward. Can you help answer constituent questions about a certain type of research? Can you connect the office with experts or with a civic organization in your city or town? Note that personal office staffers (with limited exceptions) do not handle campaign matters, so this is not the right meeting to volunteer to work on or donate to the member’s campaign. Contact their campaign office for those purposes. 

Here’s a script to get you started: 

Remember, this is just a template script: edit at will for your own research and personal experience!  

  • Opening: Thanks for taking this meeting – I know there are many, many demands on your time and I appreciate it. 
    • If you are meeting with an office that represents the state/district of your research institution, “I’m (name) and I work on (field/area) research at (institution) in your (state/district).”  
  • Get to Know Staffer: If you don’t mind, before I make my “pitch,” it would be great to hear a little about you. Are you from (state/district)? How did your path lead you to working for (Senator/Representative) 
  • Your Elevator Pitch:  
    • Come prepared with a 1–2-minute elevator pitch that: 
      • Explains your work from a 10,000 ft view and answers the question “so what?” – why is the work you are doing important to humankind? For example, if you research a protein involved in tumor development, do not focus on that specific protein or pathway but the broader role the work is playing to answer critical questions about cancer. 
      • Can succinctly describe the overall significance of your work and why it is important to your district and state. For instance, if your work is related to infectious disease or combatting antimicrobial resistance, make the connection to local disease statistics.
      • Threads in your ask. For our current example, you are making the case for why NIH research funding is important and asking that their office supports robust NIH funding. Explain how NIH funding is essential to the work you and your institution do to foster medical and health research progress.
  • Ask for the staffers thoughts about your request(s) and how best you can serve as resource to their office moving forward. 
    • Not all meetings are perfect. On the off occasion, a staffer might ask questions that you prefer not to answer, move the conversation back to the original subject, or pushback on your ask. It is important to remain courteous and not take the bait. Thank the staffer again for their time and circle back to why you personally believe your ask is important to your state or district. Congressional offices want to foster good relationships with their constituents and are usually happy to return the conversation to your ask.
  • Close by offering to serve as a resource going forward and provide them with any leave behinds you have brought with you.
  • Send a thank you email, including any additional information you have been asked to provide. Ideally, include a relevant article or website link – it could provide information useful for answering constituent correspondence on a current issue, relate to a specific NIH-funded project in your district or state, or otherwise makes sense to include. 

Pat yourself on the back! You just made a difference. Even if your meeting results in no immediate action, you have made a new connection and raised awareness. Those seeds may not bear fruit right away, but if you sustain these connections, they will yield results!