Why and How Faculty Should Participate in U.S. Policy Making

Michael A. Fisher and Lindsay K. Milliken provide a detailed recipe for facilitating the use of science as a key element of the policy-making process.

August 17, 2021
 
 
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If the U.S. Congress is to produce sound policies that benefit the public good, science and technology faculty members must become active participants in the American policy-making process. One key element of that process is congressional hearings: public forums where members of Congress question witnesses, learn about pressing issues, develop policy initiatives and conduct oversight of both the executive branch and corporate practices.

Faculty in science and technology should contribute to congressional hearings because: 1) legislators should use data and scientifically derived knowledge to guide policy development, 2) deep expertise is needed to support effective oversight of complex issues like the spread of misinformation on internet platforms or pandemic response, and 3) members of Congress are decision makers on major issues that impact the science and technology community, such as research funding priorities or the role of foreign nationals in the research enterprise. A compelling moment during a hearing can have a profound impact on public policy, and faculty members can help make those moments happen.

Experimenting With a New Model

Over the past two and a half years, our team at the Federation of American Scientists has been iterating on a model for organizing the science and technology community to engage in key congressional hearings. During a hearing, the most effective tool a member of Congress has at their disposal is a well-crafted, incisive question that shares information and presses witnesses on the issues of the day. We have mobilized science and technology experts to engage with dozens of hearings -- soliciting hundreds of suggested questions from scientists, engineers, technologists and other subject-matter experts. Our team vets crowdsourced contributions for factual accuracy, adds in supporting information and translates contributions into a hearing question format.

This nonpartisan, evidence-based information is then communicated to Congress for use in the hearings. Because our federation presents questions that are well referenced as well as in plain language and the right form, legislators can easily digest these inputs during hearings. Members of Congress have raised many of the questions we have solicited from science and technology experts during key congressional hearings, promoting a rich discussion of the issues and enhancing the capabilities of the legislative branch. We also post the questions, along with other nonpartisan informational materials and resources that indicate the political context, on the web so that policy makers and the public can take a deeper dive into the issues.

Between the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, 49 different committees and many more subcommittees convene hearings -- in fact, dozens are held every week that Congress is in session. It is vital to incorporate as much science-based information into those hearings as possible. To encourage more science and technology professors to help provide that information, we recommend they take the following steps.

Track the congressional schedule for hearings concerning science and technology. The Senate and House of Representatives hearing schedules are online, and notices are generally posted about a week before the hearings are held. The title of a hearing is instructive as to what it will be about, but possibly even more pertinent is the list of witnesses who will appear at the hearing and the organizations they represent. Any question relevant to the hearing topic or witnesses is fair game. When a hearing that would benefit from input from your area of expertise is posted, make the decision to engage in that hearing.

Crowdsource suggested hearing questions from others in your academic community. If you have questions in mind that you think members of Congress should raise during the hearing, your colleagues probably do, too. Connect with them by email, phone or social media; tell them what the hearing will be about and what witnesses will appear; and encourage them to send ideas for questions for the hearing to you. Ask them to reach out to their colleagues, as well. Identify and contact science and technology experts who have recently published papers or op-eds on the issue, or relevant science societies, to see if they would like to contribute.

Transform what your colleagues send you into “shovel-ready” questions. The key components you should include are:

  • A bolded title that states in plain, direct and clear language what the question is all about;
  • A value statement that indicates the desired outcome for a particular process;
  • A problem statement describing circumstances that could prevent the attainment of the desired outcome;
  • Supporting evidence, including hyperlinked sources, for why the issue needs to be addressed during the hearing -- information that is educational for both policy makers and the public; and
  • A question that will elicit an informative response from at least one of the witnesses. (Targeting the question to a specific witness is entirely appropriate.)

Because members of Congress and their staff have limited time and bandwidth, and tend to be generalists, shovel-ready suggested questions are usually appreciated, especially when well referenced and science based.

Identify the right congressional staffers to receive the questions. As your colleagues are working on their ideas, call the committee’s majority and minority staff teams, as well as the personal offices of all the members of Congress who are on the committee or subcommittee, to ask for the best points of contact on their teams for that specific hearing. Committee and personal office phone numbers can be found on the web. Legislative staff members will tell you the best person to send your evidence-based questions to, since they cover that particular issue for their boss and are working on the hearing.

The email addresses for staff members in personal Senate offices are formatted [email protected] (professional staff on committees have an abbreviation of their committee in place of SenatorLastName), while all House of Representative addresses are formatted [email protected] We suggest building a spreadsheet to track this information. If you leave a voice mail and no one gets back to you in a couple of days, you should call again.

Post online the questions you will be sending for the hearing -- whether on a website, blog, Google doc, PDF or Twitter thread -- so that they are public for anyone to view. Be sure to tweet the link to the questions. This demonstrates that quality questions are available for the hearing and helps avoid infringing on lobbying rules and regulations.

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Email your questions to the congressional staffers. Two days before the hearing, blind carbon copy five to 10 staffers at a time and include the questions, with bolded one-line titles, in the body of the email. Congressional staffers receive an enormous volume of email, so the email subject line should make it very clear what you are sending -- something along the lines of “Questions for [main idea of hearing here] hearing.”

At the top of your message, briefly state how many questions you’re sending, whom they’re from (for example, postdoctoral researchers who work on infectious diseases) and that they are free to use the questions or share them with colleagues, if they are helpful. Be sure to hyperlink to the resource with the questions that you’ve already made public, and again, include all the questions in the email to ensure the staffers see them when they open it.

Review the hearing and create a policy product. All hearings are livestreamed and archived on committee webpages or YouTube, so it is straightforward to compare what questions are raised during the hearing to the science-based questions you sent in.

Were any of your questions raised? Did they result in helpful or impactful exchanges, or earn media coverage? Could you write a blog post, Twitter thread or op-ed about a meaningful exchange during the hearing or your experience with sending the questions? The potential for follow-on activity is high. Your questions could even result in conversations with congressional offices interested in learning more, providing an avenue for building trusted relationships between yourself and key policy makers.

Suggested Modifications

Following the process above will result in an effective congressional outreach effort, but you can make this model even more powerful through a few modifications.

Modification A: Target hearings that your congressional representatives participate in. The vast majority of senators and representatives place extremely high value on earning re-election, so they care most about the communications they receive from their constituents and standing up for their needs and concerns during hearings. Suggested hearing questions that are sent from a coalition of constituents to the office of the member of Congress who represents those constituents will probably receive even more consideration than nonconstituent questions. So be sure to note if you or members of your coalition are constituents of a particular policy maker in your emails.

Modification B: Partner with established science and technology policy organizations. Congressional staffers will give some credence to communications from scientists, engineers and technologists whom they have not previously met. However, collaborating with organizations that have pre-existing, trusted relationships with staffers can draw even more congressional attention to your questions. Consider partnering with bipartisan organizations such as ours, the Bipartisan Policy Center or the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which have already built relationships with Capitol Hill. Such organizations may also have access to advanced tools that you can tap in to -- for instance, you can contribute to our science and technology policy discussion hubs on the POPVOX nonpartisan platform for civic engagement and governing.

Persistent Engagement Drives Sound Policy

By delivering more and more evidence-based questions to congressional hearings, science and technology faculty can make foundational contributions to the formulation of major pieces of legislation and increase their visibility as a knowledgeable resource for policy makers. The rich discussions the questions give rise to and important insights they provide during hearings will be informative for both legislators and the public.

Moreover, as a result of such outreach, stronger relationships will develop between congressional staff and scientists, engineers and technologists with deep expertise. Trusted relationships will form between staffers on Capitol Hill and STEM specialists. By mobilizing to frequently contribute to congressional hearings, the academic science and technology community can be positioned as a go-to resource for policy makers and help drive the formulation of more effective U.S. public policy.

Bio

Michael A. Fisher is a senior fellow and the director of the Congressional Science Policy Initiative, and Lindsay K. Milliken is a policy analyst for both the Congressional Science Policy Initiative and the Technology and Innovation Initiative, at the Federation of American Scientists.

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