An Eye-Opening Experience of Advocacy
Mona Dai’s opportunity to advocate for federal funding for science research certainly didn’t occur as she had planned. Yet once the PhD candidate found herself on Capitol Hill, her experience proved to be a compelling and powerful opportunity to better understand how the building blocks of the congressional appropriations process can determine the fate of U.S. science research.
“I was supposed to go to FASEB Capitol Hill Day in 2020, but that was when the pandemic hit, so it wasn’t until March this year that I was finally able to go to Washington, rather than doing phone calls to the offices of members of Congress,” said Dai, who was awarded the FASEB Howard Garrison Public Affairs Fellowship through the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention (SBDRP).
The fellowship program, targeted at trainees and young investigators, is comprised of three core learning and professional development experiences: a science policy and advocacy course, communications and advocacy training through participation in Capitol Hill Day, and leadership and professional skills development.
Standing outside the Russell Senate Office Building on a windy day in March, Dai said she felt small. She was a novice when it came to government advocacy, and the marble building was massive, even a bit foreboding. Luckily, she was part of a team that included Lee-Ann Allen from the Society for Leukocyte Biology and Chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology at University of Missouri and Meg Thompson from Federal Science Partners (FSP).
“This was my first time doing real advocacy compared to participating in climate change marches or something like that,” said Dai, who is studying environmental science and engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “If I have the opportunity, I would go again. It was an eye-opening experience.”
Her team was tapped to speak with the staff of two Missouri officials, Republicans Sen. Josh Hawley and Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer. Before trekking the halls, the scientists talked through their strategy in a basement café and devised what they would say in the meetings with congressional staff. They decided to focus on FASEB’s request to Congress to appropriate at least $51 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the upcoming fiscal year. Dai said the effort was made easier by having Thompson there to support the researchers in understanding the process and shaping their message.
One of 45 scientists, Dai, a Missouri native who researches issues related to public drinking water contamination of chemicals such as arsenic and manganese, said there were no slam-dunk victories that day, but she felt they had moved the needle. “The aides didn’t make any promises to us or even let us know whether they supported or opposed our ideas,” she said. “They were genuinely open to hearing from us, and they understood how important the issues we discussed were for science research.”
Dai believes other young researchers and other PhD candidates would benefit from participating in FASEB’s advocacy efforts on the Hill because they would be able to spend time with more senior scientists in an informal setting. “In most academic circles, you defer to the lead researcher,” she said. “But Professor Lee hadn’t done this before either, she was just like me. She was a biologist and I focus on drinking water. We brought our different worlds together as equals.”