Turning a Mock Capitol Hill Day Into a Genuine Learning Experience
Recognizing their students and postdocs weren’t being exposed to legislative advocacy as part of their core training, two West Virginia University (WVU) School of Medicine scientists have designed a series of workshops that feature a mock Capitol Hill Day to illustrate to young investigators that advocacy is an essential skill for every scientist.
The advocacy workshop and mock lobbying day provide students with a unique opportunity to use their scientific knowledge to advance positions that would benefit the broader scientific community, while also strengthening their own oral advocacy skills and learning to develop arguments to advance science policy and funding.
“This was never in my tool belt as a postdoc,” said Michael D. Schaller, a workshop co-host and a School of Medicine Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine professor. “During our training, we had no idea that this was something that needed to be done, and that we needed to do it. That’s why we thought hosting a training would be helpful. Everyone needs to participate in scientific advocacy to ensure we have the legislative support for our work now and in the future.”
Schaller and workshop co-host Eric E. Kelley, Professor and Associate Chair of Research in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the WVU Health Sciences Center, built their training sessions around National Institutes of Health-funded T32 programs, which are focused on cellular and molecular biology and biomedical engineering. They engaged some of WVU’s T32 grantees to talk about their own advocacy, giving workshop attendees a deeper understanding of how to deliver powerful and persuasive arguments.
The first day of the workshop, students discover the rewards of advocacy, and are given a rundown on the dos and don’ts of lobbying Congress. Importantly, the trainees learn how to talk about the complexities of science with non-experts. The first day of the inaugural workshop was all the more compelling because it included a talk with WVU’s Director of Federal Relations Suzanne Bentzel, who had served in prominent legislative positions for both West Virginia Sens. Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller.
The second day of the workshop, students experience a mock Capitol Hill Day, which has been a central advocacy instrument for FASEB. The professors invite congressional staffers from West Virginia offices to WVU to interact with teams of three or four graduate students, as if they were visiting their offices in Washington, D.C. It is a rare chance for students to interact with legislative staffers, including the opportunity to debrief with them afterward and learn how things work on Capitol Hill.
“We help our trainees understand how to respond to people who would challenge their assumptions,” said Kelley, who is Vice President for Science Policy for FASEB. “They don’t know how to take that. They wonder how you counter that kind of response, and we talk about how to pivot and stay on message when you’re receiving some pushback.”
Schaller, who has served on the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee, said the mock event gives students a chance to learn how to respond to challenging questions. He recounted a past visit to a congressional office when a staffer said it was hard to advocate for more money for science research when Congress was also trying to fund the health needs of seniors through Medicare.
“I had no idea how to handle this, and I mentioned it to someone else in our group lobbying on the Hill, and he had a great answer,” said Schaller. “He said, ‘Medicare is taking care of the people once they're sick. Investment in research, which is a smaller percentage of what you're investing in Medicare, is for the prevention of disease, or for improved treatments that are going to reduce the costs of Medicare.’”
Kelley, who is also a member of the Society for Redox Biology and Medicine (SfRBM), said he began to understand how important advocacy was after joining the FASEB Board and sitting in on meetings where advocacy was a critical issue. “That’s when my eyes were opened. I had no idea what was going on in the kitchen, and I just started thinking that we have to get more people involved.”