Science on the Hill: connecting research to policy through virtual Congressional meetings

Corinn Rutkoski and Ekrem Ozlu share their experiences from a recent Congressional Visit Day where they advocated for several USDA research programs. Corinn is a graduate student in Sarah Evans’s lab and studies microbial ecology and the use of perennials in agricultural systems. Ekrem is a postdoctoral researcher in Phil Robertson’s lab and studies soil management and carbon sequestration.

The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) recently hosted their annual Congressional Visits Day, giving a group of KBS scientists and students an opportunity to connect with elected officials and advocate for continued research funding. The two of us, along with KBS graduate students Alice Puchalsky and Tayler Ulbrich, participated in the 2021 event and met with four Congressional offices to urge their support of agricultural programs relevant to research at KBS.

Every year, the SSSA invites scientists from all 50 states to travel to Washington D.C., meet with their Congressional representatives, and ask them to support research funding in the coming fiscal year. This type of program is common across scientific societies and organizations, and aims to strengthen communication between scientists and policymakers. This year, the Congressional Visits Day event was fully virtual amid pandemic restrictions. Though the program looked a little different from a typical year, the virtual format made participation even more accessible. 

Congressional Visits Day participants collectively asked Congresspeople for their support of three specific USDA research programs: the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the Equipment Grants Program (EGP), and the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AgARDA). Each of these programs supports innovation in agriculture nationwide. AFRI, the most wide-ranging grant program in the USDA, funds research in food production, renewable energy, nutrition, rural communities, and beyond. Several MSU researchers receive funding from AFRI to investigate social, environmental and economic dimensions of Michigan agriculture. The 2018 farm bill established EGP as a supplement to AFRI to specifically fund projects that require large or specialized equipment. And finally, AgARDA, the newest of the three programs, is aimed at funding novel agriculture research approaches through private-public partnerships. 

Before the event, we attended a series of webinar training sessions hosted by the SSSA policy office that familiarized scientists with the legislative process and effective strategies for communicating with elected officials. Following the SSSA training program, meetings between scientists and staffers were scheduled, and our team worked together to plan an outline for each congressional meeting. 

Our team met with the staffers of four Congresspeople: Senator Gary Peters, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Congressman Fred Upton, and Congressman John Moolenaar. Fortunately, the four offices were unanimously supportive of continued funding for these USDA programs. We were able to answer staffers’ questions and describe the impact that these programs have on Michigan, including the numerous research projects they fund at MSU. The staffers, some of whom specialize in agriculture policy specifically, were also interested in learning more about our individual research projects and the implications of our findings for social, environmental and economic dimensions of Michigan agriculture. All in all, the meetings were a success. 

A screenshot from the KBS LTER team's meeting with Senator Debbie Stabenow's staffer.
A screenshot from the KBS LTER team’s meeting with Senator Debbie Stabenow’s staffer.

If you are a scientist interested in connecting with Congressional representatives, but you don’t have much experience in the policy realm, society-organized congressional meetings are a great place to start. It is an experience that helps to improve your communication, networking, and leadership together. The host society or organization typically offers communication training workshops ahead of scientists’ Congressional meetings to ensure that participants new to the process are well-prepared, and societies often host these programs annually in early spring when the federal budget is being proposed, so there are regular opportunities to engage. 

While the structure of society-organized meetings makes it easier for someone new to participate in political advocacy, scientists with policy experience may benefit more from individual, independently-organized meetings with Congressional representatives. Society-organized programs require that all participants advocate for the same legislative action (such as a specific budget increase, or support of a particular research program) in all of their meetings, so there is little flexibility in what participants can ask of their representatives. If there is a particular science policy initiative that you are passionate about, you can always set up an individual meeting with your congressperson to advocate your position. Find an option that works for you and make your voice heard!

Want to learn more or get involved? Here are some links to programs and resources: