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Overview: Listening to Government

(Holland in SSRL) Yesterday morning, Mike Holland and Steve Sekula talked about how important it is for scientists to communicate their work to their elected representatives and the public and described how to go about doing it during a "Listening to Washington" event organized by the SLAC Users' Organization (SLUO).

Holland, designee to the Chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy, shared the perspective from Congress down, while Sekula, a BaBar researcher from MIT, offered the "view from the espresso-soaked trenches of basic research up to Congress."

Holland stressed that lawmakers are usually not scientists. Therefore, we should explain our research to them in terms of its public good, skipping the technical details.

First and foremost among the benefits of research to society is the excitement of discovery, Holland said. The government spends money on basic discovery science because the American people love it. Once a year, Holland said, the government goes shopping. But instead of buying toilet paper, orange juice and vegetables, it buys public programs such as health care, security, national parks, and—yes—discovery science.

Therefore, Holland suggested that in order to be effective communicators, researchers should focus on the broad, exciting aspects of their research, answering the questions "why are we doing this?" and "what will we gain?" in terms of a compelling story.

"The story of expansion and of the pushing of boundaries is very important to the American character, resonating with Americans and the body politic," Holland said, giving the example of the 19th-century American Western expansion. Rather than doing a derivation or showing data points that will bore a politician, he emphasized that researchers should tell the human story of how we expand the boundaries of knowledge and of our understanding of the beginning of the universe.

Holland also made the point that the agency that funds most physical sciences research—the Department of Energy's Office of Science, has no "brand recognition." Lawmakers know what they are buying when they give money to NASA (footsteps on the moon), NIH (curing disease), or NSF (supporting universities). But they don't really know the Office of Science, and that hurts this agency's funding. He suggested developing the brand by stressing that the discoveries we are making are made possible by funding by the Office of Science.

In his presentation, Sekula reiterated the importance of parsing a scientific message in terms of a compelling story. While on a day-to-day basis you might be doing mundane things such as running computer jobs or fixing problems, your real story is exciting: "It's about the knowledge of the universe," he said. "This is probably the story that got you interested [in physics] in the first place."

To help researchers communicate with government, Sekula presented a complete package, containing an "elevator talk," an extended conversation and a continued relationship with a politician. He also offered tips on how to first make contact with your local representatives and where to go for additional resources.

The elevator talk is a 30-second description of who you are, what you do, and most importantly, the "big picture:" the exciting aspects of the scientific questions to which your work contributes.

This captures the listener's interest and leads to a continued conversation, where you describe more of what you do (but stay away from jargon and technical details). Finally, a concrete request tells the listener what you want from them. This can come in the form of an invitation to visit your lab or university, or an invitation to support general science or a particular bill.

Sekula stressed that government communication is about building relationships. The most satisfying relationships take and effort time to evolve. He suggested maintaining the relationship by sending the member of Congress or their staff an occasional note, telling them about an interesting recent discovery in your field, or sharing with them your thesis or recent paper.

Short-term benefits of such communication can include a politician's increased awareness of his or her scientific constituency, a greater understanding of science issues, and your own personal satisfaction of being part of the democratic process. Long term benefits can include the opportunity to advise politicians on issues.

To make the first contact, Sekula said it is best to drive down to your Congressional representative's local district office, or call and ask for an appointment with the person who handles science issues. The address and phone number can be easily obtained online.

To stay informed, Sekula pointed out several useful websites: The American Physical Society Office of Public Affairs, The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News, and his own website,

—Abi Soffer
   SLAC Today, May 31, 2006

Streaming Video of the Listening to Washington event is now available online. Available footage consists of Mike Holland's talk and questions, Steve Sekula's talk, and the final Q&A session. Please note that the first two minutes of Holland's talk are missing. You can also view the PowerPoint presentations of Holland and Sekula online. 

If you are a SLAC employee and do not have Real Media Player installed on your computer, you can download it here.

Image: Mike Holland at SSRL.