Friday, 20 June 2014 09:12

Write (with a Pen!) in the Fight for Science Funding

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Imagine a politician receiving hundreds of hand-written letters from his or her constituents all in support of a single goal—an increase in science funding. The impact of this could be remarkable.

LetterWritersEmory University faculty, graduate students, and postdocs
encouraging members of Congress to prioritize science funding.
Photo courtesy of Andrew P. Kowalczyk
A graduate student-led science advocacy and policy group at Emory University, Political.Scientists, aimed to achieve this type of impact. Recently, Political.Scientists hosted a letter-writing campaign in which faculty, students, and postdocs wrote letters by hand, advocating increases in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) budgets. These letters served to inform members of Congress of the impact that recent NIH and NSF budget cuts have had on the scientific community, as well to ask for their support to restore the NIH and NSF budgets back to pre-sequestration levels. The event was wildly successful. Close to 400 hand-written letters were collected and sent to Georgia's U.S. senators and to metro-Atlanta congressional representatives.

In this current funding climate, it is increasingly important to communicate to your members of Congress the importance of NIH and NSF funding. Sitting down to write your politicians can feel like a monumental task. Thus it is no wonder that even though many of us support scientific funding, taking the time to be an advocate for the cause is often pushed to the bottom of our to-do lists. A letter-writing campaign gives people the opportunity to sit down and carve out that letter. Below are some tips to help you carry out a successful letter-writing campaign.

lettersClose to 400 hand-written letters collected at the
Political.Scientists letter writing campaign.
Photo courtesy of Chelsey Chandler Ruppersburg
Advertise well. The high turnout for the Political.Scientists letter-writing campaign was a result of persistent advertising. In addition to the typical advertising method of posting flyers around campus and emailing program and/or department listservs, we found that individual emails to faculty members were extremely effective. Though personalized emails might take a little more time, they have a much greater impact than your run-of-the-mill listserv email. In fact, most of the faculty that the Executive Board members of Political.Scientists emailed directly came to the event. Another effective method of advertising is by word of mouth: Tell everyone you meet about the event.

Be prepared. Provide participants with everything they might need to write the letter—the more resources that you provide, the more likely people are to actually write the letter. Be sure to provide plenty of paper (resume style paper is a nice touch), pens, envelopes, and a writing surface for everyone. Be sure also to have the addresses for your senators and representatives at hand. We recommend printing the senators' and representatives' addresses on mailing labels; that way participants can easily write their return address on the envelope and slap on a label. Also, providing treats or snacks adds an additional layer of incentive for participants.

Options, options, options. Preparing a concise and well-thought-out letter can take some time, which is why writing a letter to a senator or representative tends to be pushed to the bottom of our to-do lists. To alleviate this issue, provide the writers with a template letter to use as a guide, while still encouraging the writer to add his or her own personal touches. Additionally, provide condensed writing options for people who are short on time. A thank you note to a member Congress for past support of the NIH and/or NSF can be effective. For people with only a couple of minutes to spare, hand over a pre-typed letter that the participant can simply sign before addressing the envelope. Providing a variety of options for people who may be short on time is a great way to include more people and allow their voices to be heard.

ScienceFundLettersPolitical.Scientists Executive Board members (L-R) Chelsey Chandler
Ruppersburg, Paul Donlin-Asp, Julia Omotade, Amanda York,
Ariana Mullin, and Joshua Lewis collected roughly 400 hand-written letters.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Lewis
We have all witnessed the devastating effects that the cuts to the NIH and NSF budgets have had on labs across the United States—few labs are hiring, lab personnel are being laid off, and some labs have even been forced to shut down. The effects of these budget cuts are not limited to the scientific community; rather, these cuts have ripple effects on our community and the overall economy. After all, new discoveries from basic and translational research can expand many existing industries and create entirely new industries—fueling American innovation and economic growth. We therefore must keep the lines of communication open between the scientific community and members of Congress. We, as scientists, need to stand up and take charge of our future—after all, if we don't, who will?

Amanda York

Amanda York is a PhD candidate in the Department of Cell Biology at Emory University. Her work is focused on understanding the cytoskeletal mechanisms that regulate neuromuscular junction development.

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