Want your government to increase funding for research? Here is what you can do
Joe Luchsinger shares his advice on advocating for science investment.
In November 2017, a proposal was moving through the US federal legislature that would have increased the amount of taxes payable by graduate students across the United States by up to US$10,000 per year.
As a fourth-year MD–PhD student who would have been affected by the proposal, I e-mailed my US representative, Jim Cooper (Democrat), to ask him to oppose the tax. We met at his home office in Nashville, Tennessee, the following month, although my inexperience in lobbying meant that the conversation largely consisted of the congressman helping me to understand how I could advocate more effectively. He explained the importance of community participation (through phone calls and letters) and of bringing a larger coalition to policy discussions with legislators so that they wouldn’t see a lone graduate student as the only person fighting for an issue.
A month after our chat, I got a phone call from a member of Cooper’s staff, who told me that I had left my wallet under the conference-room table. Of course, that revelation came long after I had already replaced my driver’s licence and all of my credit cards.
It wasn’t an auspicious start. Still, I remained convinced that petitioning the federal government to improve support for research was my duty as a scientist, and I continued to look for ways to bring about that change.
Then, I got lucky. The US Society for Neuroscience (SfN) announced its year-long Early Career Policy Ambassadors programme, which included ‘advocacy’ training. I leapt at the opportunity, joined the course and learnt that there is no magic to advocating effectively — all it takes is preparation and practise.
I met extensively with legislators and their staff members in Washington DC during the training. And my efforts have paid off. I’ve been able to get Cooper, as well as staff from the offices of three US senators, into my laboratory to see federal research dollars in action.
As a result of my advocacy and that of many others, legislators rejected the tax proposal in 2017 and repeatedly increased annual federal research funding through the US National Institutes of Health up to its current $39 billion.
Here are eight takeaways from my training and advocacy efforts:
Form or find a team.
Join your national research society: it assists and coordinates scientists who want to get involved with advocacy. Many societies manage effective proposals or platforms across the research community (such as those calling for specific funding increases or regulations related to research); the unified message helps policymakers to know what legislation to support.
Begin with the end in mind.
Spell out your goals, then lay out a plan for presenting your arguments.
Before meeting with a legislator, divide up key topics among group members. You’ll each need to assemble relevant facts and concrete information on your assigned topic that you can reel off in two or three minutes.
Once in the meeting, each member of your advocacy group should introduce themselves using their name, institution, constituency, career stage and area of research.
Develop effective ‘asks’.
‘Asks’ are the policy requests that you make to legislators. Make sure to hit three points: the precise amount of funding that your group is requesting; the specific agency or initiative that will receive this funding; and the time frame for funding distribution (this year or next year, for example).
Identify the appropriate legislator.
Find out who is responsible for appropriating funds for research in your area by searching government websites. In the United States, for example, the federal government funds the majority of scientific research through agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Elsewhere, both national and international agencies might provide research grants. The governmental bodies that oversee these funding agencies dictate their resources. Determine who your representatives are in these governmental bodies because those people are likely to be the most responsive.
Get to know whether your lawmakers are involved in any funding-related committees, and concentrate your efforts on the legislators with the most influence. Learn their legislative and budgetary priorities, along with their personal interests, to prepare for potential questions. For example, in a senate office with a National Football League player on staff, I spoke about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (which is caused by repeated blows to the head and consequently is of concern to American-football players), and this helped our case.
When you’re trying to set up a meeting with a legislator or a staffer, e-mail and phone calls are a good way to make initial contact. If you have already communicated with the office, reply to the last e-mail rather than starting a new chain, to provide context and increase the likelihood of a response. Include your professional title, any scientific society (such as SfN) or advocacy group affiliated with your coalition, the number of group members, the proposed advocacy activity or request, and any planned meetings between students or researchers and the legislator.
Contact your national society or investigate online to establish which decision makers are involved in the government’s budget in its current phase. I recall a senate staffer — from an office that is a key gatekeeper for research investment — becoming particularly interested in our asks when we transitioned our discussion to the funding bill that he was actively working on and emphasized its concrete implications for research. By making your requests timely and relevant to ongoing legislation, you can increase the likelihood that your input will gain traction.
Choose advocacy activities deliberately.
Advocacy activities have different levels of impact. The more personal the activity (for example, individualized versus mass e-mails), the more weight it will hold with the legislator. These types of interaction, such as phone or face-to-face discussions, are more effective than electronic communication.
Public forums, expert panels and lab tours are ideal ways to share information with lawmakers. Tangible experiences offer lasting memories for legislators or staffers and provide them with positive stories to discuss with their colleagues while they work on legislation.
If you cannot meet in person, call your legislator’s office. Staff members tally the number of phone calls that they receive on an issue. While waiting for a member of Congress in his office, I overheard staffers start to talk about taxes, after a few constituents had phoned in to express related concerns. Calls are more effective than generic e-mails, not only because they are more personal, but also because computer algorithms cannot sort through them — which ensures that a staffer will engage with your topic.
Either way, refer to particular proposals or legislation because specifics provide actionable follow-ups.
Refine your presentation.
Remember to tailor your narrative to the legislator. Your explanations should be polished and devoid of jargon.
Politicians find information most compelling when it directly affects their constituents. In my presentations, I often link my addiction research (and federal funding) to the explosion in Tennesseans battling substance-use disorder. Analogously, I advocated alongside a prominent diabetes researcher who invited patients, physicians and researchers to in-person meetings to bolster the narrative.
And you’ll need to rehearse — a lot. Ask a non-scientist to act as the legislator, and practise everything you plan to do and say. Concise delivery will help lawmakers and staffers remember you and convey your asks to others.
You might get a variation of this question: “I love science and research, so what should I cut to make room for your funding increases?” Answer by focusing on the importance of research — and remember that it is not your role to make other specific budgetary recommendations.
Follow up with the office.
Maintain communication to make sure that your issue continues to get attention. The easiest meeting for politicians is one that has no follow-up. Your ongoing contact with the office will help to underscore the importance of the issue to the constituents of your district or region. Within two days, send a thank-you note that summarizes your message.
- Career Advice
Four ways to fight science-funding cuts across Europe
Hundreds of thousands of young researchers are at the mercy of European Union funding policy, but they are rarely involved in conversations about it. Only by engaging more fully with the budget process will junior researchers be able to bring their concerns to the table, as we have found in our governing and managing roles at advocacy group EuroScience (B.C.) and the Initiative for Science in Europe (M.M.). The European Commission hosts an annual event to help shape research and innovation policy, called the European Research and Innovation Days. At this year’s meeting, held virtually over three days in September, Mariya Gabriel, commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, urged attendees to work together to make the European Research Area (ERA) — a ‘common market’ for research across the EU — into a “lighthouse of excellence”. Although we acknowledge her good will, reaching this goal requires the buy-in and collaboration of researchers, research institutions and member states. Researchers put much energy and passion into improving European research, yet member states do not seem to care much. Just when the coronavirus pandemic has shown us that a multi- and interdisciplinary approach is the only way to face systemic challenges, policymakers have slashed the European Commission budget for research. In 2021, the European Research Council (ERC) will get 14% less than it received in 2020. The programme of grants called the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) faces a budget cut of roughly 25%. Worse yet, in July, both the MSCA and the ERC were excluded from Next Generation EU, the programme to support EU efforts to recover from the pandemic. This seems particularly ironic, considering the roles of both the MSCA and the ERC in supporting the next generation of researchers, and the extraordinary levels of financial support from the recovery fund. By contrast, researchers, particularly those in the early stages of their career, were left on their own. Some national funders — such as the German research council DFG, the Humboldt Foundation in Germany and the French and Spanish governments — offered extra funding with grant extensions, but the European Commission provided none. As a result, the careers of junior researchers are being hindered by the negligence and short-sightedness of policymakers. It is time for them to fight for their future — and for senior scientists to support them. On 28 September, four days after the European Research and Innovation Days, the Initiative for Science in Europe, supported by Euroscience, hosted a press conference with the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, the Young Academy of Europe and the Marie Curie Alumni Association. The three organizations described how COVID-19 is affecting the professional outlook for early-career researchers and how prioritizing investment in research and innovation is essential to support recovery and the next generation of researchers. They called for EU member states to provide extra funding to the European Commission. Budget complexity The complexity of addressing these issues can be explained by looking at the process of commission budget negotiations. In 2018, the commission proposed a budget for Horizon Europe, a research programme that will run between 2021 and 2027. In May this year, it proposed significant cuts. In July and early September, EU member states made further cuts. On 29 September, in the only change to the budget since then, member states chose to increase the MSCA budget by €200 million (US$235 million). Our campaign might have had some effect, but the community generally considered the increase to be a symbolic gesture. The European Parliament must still approve the final budget, and has some room to modify allocation. Horizon Europe is one of the 15 flagship EU programmes identified as top priorities by members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in late September. Nevertheless, there is a lot of pressure to agree on a budget quickly, so that the commission can plan its work from 1 January 2021. Campaign to influence policymaking So far, most junior researchers have not taken the initiative to fight for their future. This is due partly to the complexity of the processes, but mostly to the fact that academics keep the discussion in their community: there is no historical tradition of ‘getting political’ or reaching out to other communities, such as business and industry. This gap can be filled if researchers build up a movement to gain political weight. It is time for early-career researchers to look ahead and beyond the laboratory bench. Here are a few suggestions for taking the initiative and becoming more engaged. Prepare your arguments. Acquire evidence to support your case by conducting studies. These can include surveys; the Marie Curie Alumni Association and the Young Academy of Europe have both run surveys on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected junior researchers. An evidence base is useful for persuading policymakers of the validity of your arguments, and for making sure that your arguments are well thought out and stand up against scrutiny. Communicate with and reach out to the media. Be active on social media. You might not influence policymakers directly at first, but you will find potential allies. Make sure to tag a mixture of both in your posts. In our campaign to boost commission funding, we often tagged Gabriel, along with the ERC, the MSCA, the advocacy group Friends of the ERC and the European Universities Association. Foster conversation by organizing a webinar or conference session. For example, on 3 September, one of us (B.C.) ran a session at the 2020 EuroScience Open Forum virtual meeting on the impact of COVID-19 on the career development of researchers, and that led to media coverage. Contact journalists — local, regional and national, online and print — to cover your story. General engagement is important for building a relationship between the public and researchers. You will need to convince policymakers that your arguments not only are correct but also have support from the general public. Media coverage is very helpful in bringing such issues to the attention of the public. Articles on how COVID-19 affects junior researchers have been published in regional, national and specialist media outlets, including Nature. Conventional media often require a personal angle for their readership to empathize with your story. Many researchers in our network suffered from aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and protested against cuts to the MSCA, and their stories could be used in coverage. Get involved in the policy conversation. Find a political champion for your campaign. In this case, we approached several MEPs for support, including Lina Galvez Muñoz from Spain, who is vice-chair of the European Parliament’s committee on industry, research and energy. Take advantage of public consultations by policymakers to raise questions in a forthright but respectful way. For example, attendees asked many questions at the European Research and Innovation Days. Questions reached both Gabriel and Jean-Eric Paquet, the European Commission’s director-general for research and innovation. Remember that you are not alone. Form alliances with organizations representing early-career researchers. In this campaign, Eurodoc, the Young Academy of Europe and the Marie Curie Alumni Association all have a large membership including early- to mid-career researchers with aspirations of benefiting from MSCA or ERC, whose careers will be affected by COVID-19. Work with organizations representing research institutions. Researchers working abroad can find it difficult to influence political decisions in their host countries, but institutions have channels for communicating with ministries for science, research or education. The president of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands has advocated a higher Horizon Europe budget to the Dutch parliament; the parliament later passed a motion in favour of it. And form alliances with research funders. In our campaign, the ERC’s independence from the European Commission allowed it to campaign much more effectively than could any of the programmes directly under the commission’s oversight, such as the MSCA. And we were able to reach out to interim ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon in a way that we could not have done with the head of any other EU-funded research programme. Bourguignon’s involvement attracted the attention of many journalists covering European research funding. Acquiring political weight is a long process that needs the participation of the research community throughout. Disengagement is the wrong strategy; only through active participation and interaction with all stakeholders can researchers show that their work matters. The debacle over the budget for Horizon Europe shows how little European policymakers think about research. We do not want this to happen again in the next framework programme. It is imperative that we unite and fight for what we consider crucial and essential. Originally posted on nature.com on 4th November 2020 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03121-7