How to Be Heard by Legislators
NIH is operating under a continuing resolution because the budget has not yet passed both houses of Congress.
Your senators and congressional representatives want to hear their constituents. They have fairly specific channels they use to estimate the weight of opinion from residents of their districts: 1) phone calls, 2) visits to district/national office(s), 3) letters, and 4) local meetings. The last is getting harder to read. Bet on the former.
Here’s the plan:
- Identify your legislators and their contact information at whoismyrepresentative.com
- Call when you have time to be on hold.
- While you are waiting, Google the address of the district office for each of your legislators. The website above has DC addresses which are slightly less potent than district offices for garnering attention by mail.
- Have your talking points ready (see below). However recognize that you may not get to them in the call if staff are counting calls by content, a process similar to a yeah or nay poll.
Draft your letters with a similar script:
Who you are:
A. I am a researcher on the faculty at [Important University in Your State]. (Of course I don’t officially represent the university and am sharing my personal views.)
B. I am an early career faculty member [Important University in Your State]. (Of course I don’t officially represent the university and am sharing my personal views.)
What you study, in plain language:
A. I study which surgeries are the optimal way to cure incontinence in women.
B. I study what makes some people much less likely than others to get Alzheimer’s disease using genetics and brain imaging like MRI. We aim to find an approach to prevention.
Current relationship to NIH:
A. I am a researcher affiliated with [or PI of] the NIH [what network] who conduct crucial large-scale randomized studies to determine what interventions are effective.
B. I have an NIH career development award. The federal government has already invested more than $350,000 in helping launch my career.
Remind the staffer that funding is based on merit:
A. There are [number] sites in our network for which the strongest sites are selected every five years through competitive, peer-reviewed applications to NIH.
B. Fewer than one in three scientists who apply receive these awards. I say that to emphasize that researchers do compete to get their research funded.
State what reduction in funding could mean for you and/or your institution:
A. More than [how many people] have [my condition of interest] and treatment [or prevention] options are limited [or similar simple statement about state of the science]. The [name of NIH Network] gets answers that have immediate importance to these patients and their care providers. I’m concerned that [Institute] is not prioritizing a key issue for patients suffering with [what].
B. In the next step of my career, I am currently facing 1 in 6 odds that my NIH proposals will be funded. Flat funding could make this challenge unwinnable for me and for my colleagues. Smart and motivated people will leave research.
Closer (your take home message with passion):
A. The loss of the prior investment in this longstanding collaborative, multisite network will be stunning. Our network has conducted more than [how many] large scale trials, demonstrating what treatment options are best, have the least risks, have lower costs, and get lasting results.
B. The loss of investment in great science and promising investigators will be stunning if the NIH budget is not expanded to give early career researchers a better chance.
Offer to stay in touch (scientists on the record are hard to find):
A./B. Please feel free to contact me if you need specific stories to make this point.
Email volume is overwhelming and most legislative offices do not have enough staff to sort out signal from noise. Ditto Facebook, Twitter, etc. Even if the legislator has a social media presence, the staff work primarily to control flaming and don’t use comments or messages as data about their base. Call and write.
Calls and letters are logged. That makes them potent. Block off time soon and make those calls. Scientists have succeeded in recent years in protecting NIH funding and in prioritizing programs of research. Take action before the window closes for this year.