Feb. 21 2017

You’ve Got a Seat at the Table: Now What?

CUMC’s experts offer advice for public health scientists seeking to translate evidence into tools for effective advocacy

The term “lobbyist” has earned its bad rap—but for all the many speaking on behalf of corporate interests, there are a few standing up for science. Opening his remarks at last month’s Teach-In, Ross Frommer, VP for Government and Community Affairs and Associate Dean at Columbia University Medical Center, shared a quote attributed to Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY): “If you’re not at the table, you’ll be on the menu.”

As CUMC’s top lobbyist, Frommer partnered with Irwin Redlener, professor of Health Policy and Management, to host Teach-In sessions about how public health scholars can—and should—bring scientific evidence out of the laboratory and into the offices of lawmakers across the country. Together, they laid out principles for scientists just getting into the advocacy game, whether their area of expertise is climate change, healthcare reform, or child poverty. Below are some of their top tips:

Conquer your fears of talking to the media

Speaking in public, building a digital presence, and earning media exposure are some of a researcher’s first steps toward becoming a thought leader and a credible expert that policymakers turn to for guidance. And, as Redlener points out, these are often the most intimidating hurdles for scientists usually immersed in the world of laboratories and peer reviews.

“But it’s time for us all to get over our fears,” says Redlener. “These skills can be learned, and having a public opinion on policy doesn’t undermine a scientist’s credibility or objectivity. If you want to express a valid, science-based opinion, that’s not only okay—it’s sometimes necessary.”

Work with your Office of Government Relations

Everyone has the same First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, but there are many regulations surrounding the art of lobbying—that’s where university government relations offices (like the one led by Frommer at CUMC) come in. They can help give clarity about who you’re speaking for, provide guidance on messaging and strategy, and help you understand the rules around your role as an advocate.  

Find common ground and blend science with stories

First and foremost, it’s crucial for a researcher to get the science right and to own their expertise—but that can’t be the whole argument. While evidence lies at the heart of any scientist’s advocacy, it’s important to remember that the goal is to appeal to a person who may need to sell their decisions to skeptical voters in home districts.

“Facts, evidence, studies, science are almost never enough to combat an argument based on ideology or strongly held political beliefs,” says Redlener. “Marry your science with stories—especially those that show the local and personal impact of policies, because they often resonate deeper than the macro, global, or ‘greater good’ arguments.”

If you’re working to gain support for or educate policymakers about an issue on both sides of the aisle, it’s important to find common ground. “Even if you disagree with 80 percent of someone’s policies, you can and need to work inside the 20 percent you have in common to get something done,” says Frommer. He advises all advocates to do their research on who they’re talking to: if you try to understand and connect with your target audience, you’re more likely to find arguments to appeal to their goals and find success.

Start early—and lower down the totem poll

The legislative process tends to take a while—but that doesn’t mean advocates can wait around until the last minute to meet with decision-makers or share their expertise. Decisions on elements within a law are made throughout a draft piece of legislation’s journey between offices on Capitol Hill and Houses of Congress, and sometimes it can be too late in negotiations to reverse them or even change specific wording within a bill.

In addition to starting early, Redlener and Frommer recommend talking to congressional staffers in addition to Members of Congress: staffers are not only easier to access and have more time to focus on a specific issue area, but they tend be more involved in the nitty-gritty details within policies.

Kathleen Bachynski, who earned her PhD at the Mailman School in 2016, experienced this first-hand when she had research published on safety issues in youth football. Unbeknownst to her, Sen. Tom Udall had sponsored a bill pushing for better regulations for manufacturers of helmets and other protective equipment—a member of his staff reached out to Bachynski to discuss her work and solicit her expert advice on pending legislation.

Know you’re in it for the long haul

Both Redlener and Frommer have spent decades in the policy and advocacy arena, and stressed the need to understand how hard the work can be and to lower expectations—sometimes small victories are all that’s possible to achieve.

“Steel yourself,” says Redlener. “There’s no place in advocacy for people with thin skins. It’s a long fight, and there is a lot of failure in this business. And remember: the science is critical to giving us a shot at making policy differences that matter.”