Student Policy and Advocacy Groups

START WITH THE PAPERWORK

Once you decide to form a science policy and advocacy group, there are six things you will need to do in the first two months.

  1. What rules apply? Each University or institution has its own unique rules about how to start a group, especially in the case of student groups. There may be forms to fill out and you may even have to make a presentation to a department or school council. To locate this information, check with the main office of the graduate school or with the graduate student council.
  2. Find a faculty advisor. Even if University rules do not require it, it may be best to find a faculty advisor at soon as possible. Faculty advisors can help you navigate the bureaucracy and politics of your institution and offer ongoing advice. The ASCB may be able to help you identify potential advisors.
  3. Come up with a name and a logo. The groups’ name should be something catchy that will be easy for people to remember and will quickly indicate what the group is about. The name should be unique and not sound like other groups on campus. After you decide on a name, start thinking about a logo for the group. When designing your logo, here are three rules you should follow: 1) keep it simple 2) only use one font style and 3) don’t use more than two colors. Make sure your logo is in compliance with any visual identity standards your institution may have.
  4. Define the group’s constitution. It is critical to come up with some founding documents for the group. Check with your department of graduate program but a quick Google search will provide you with a wide range of sample constitutions for student organizations. As the group matures, you may find that you want to make changes but you should begin by answering some basic questions:
    What is the purpose of the group? This is its Mission Statement.
    How many officers will run the organization?
    How do people become members of the group?
    How often will meetings take place?
    How will future officers be selected?
  5. Apply for a charter from your University or institution. As with the rules connected with forming groups, your institution should have guidelines and standard forms for seeking a charter.

f) Look for sources of funding. It is very likely that your University will have funding available to help run the group’s operations. You can also look to organizations connected with your institution or even with life science industry in the area.

Alternative to Forming a University‐sanctioned group

Based on each institution’s rules (especially regarding postdoctoral‐led groups), it may be easier to be a subcommittee of a larger organization with a similar mission. For example, at the University of Kansas Medical Center, the science policy group is a subcommittee of the Biomedical Research Resource Association (BRRA). The BRRA seeks to provide professional development and educational resources to graduate students so a science policy subcommittee fits well within this organization.

Starting a policy group as a subcommittee may be easier and require less paperwork. Other advantages include being able to share financial resources and have access to a greater pool of members. This may be a good option for a smaller institution or one where student life is not as well developed. The disadvantage of this approach is limited visibility as a subcommittee being a part of a larger organization.

 

NOW WHAT DO YOU DO?

The paperwork is completed, the officers selected, and you are starting to gain members. Now the fun begins. In order to have an active group with lots of members, you will need to do two things: have regular, formal meetings and have policy-related events.

  1. Regular general meetings – the timing of these meetings should be outlined in the group’s constitution but make sure you hold them as required. It is advisable to have at least one general membership meeting each semester. Use these meetings to attract new members, inform current members about the group’s ongoing activities, and plan future events. Make sure to advertise the meeting in advance.
  2. Policy-related events – The policy activities are really the bread and butter activities of your group. They should be focused around teaching your members how to be good science policy advocates and then sponsoring science policy activities. Don’t try to make the events too amazing. It’s okay to start small.

➢ Your Science in Two Minutes – in order to be an effective science policy advocate, scientists need to be able to explain their work concisely and in way non-scientists can understand. An interactive session that allows members to practice their two minute speech would be an invaluable session to hold.

➢ Sponsor Letter / E-mail campaigns – a vital part of science policy and advocacy is letting your elected officials know how you feel about critical science-related issues. Your group can serve as a catalyst for all members of your institution to speak out on a science policy issue. While citizens should feel free to communicate with their elected officials on a wide range of issues, it is advisable that letter / email campaigns sponsored by your group be limited to topics of direct concern to science. In 2014, the Emory Science Advocacy Network (EScAN) at Emory University sponsored just such an event and it was a huge success. (To read more about their efforts, go to https://www.ascb.org/write-with-a-pen-in-the-fight-for-science-funding/)

➢ Host a Speaker – Senators, Members of Congress, Congressional staff, or other policy professionals make great guest speakers. You should also invite them to tour labs and see research firsthand and hear how science funding is used from students and postdoc. Make sure to always coordinate with your institution’s public information and government relations offices.

➢ Attend national Capitol Hill Days – The ASCB and many other professional scientific societies sponsor trips to Capitol Hill for meetings with your Congressional representatives. You can inform your membership about how to apply and may want to  consider providing small travel awards. To sign up for Coalition for the Life Sciences- sponsored Capitol Hill Days, go to http://www.coalitionforlifesciences.org/be-an- advocate/capitol-hill-days.

➢ Understanding Federal Government — It may be useful to hold a few informational sessions to inform members about how the federal government operates. Topics can include how the federal appropriations process works, how a bill becomes a law, etc. Being knowledgeable about these topics will help members understand policy and speak and/or write about policy issues more effectively.

➢ Involvement in elections – Involvement in science policy can easily lead to involvement in politics and elections.

While important, you should think carefully before taking this step. Keep these facts in mind as you decide:

– Support for science is not a partisan issue. For example, support for the NIH has historically increased under Republican leadership.
– Not all scientists, and members of your group, are of the same political party.
– Your institution’s policies, especially if you receive funding, may place limitations on involvement in partisan activities.

One solution may be to communicate with all candidates, sharing your views and offering speaking opportunities equally.

  1. Stay Informed – Keeping up to date on the latest policy activities in Washington will be important to the long-term success of the group. Some of the best ways to monitor what Washington is up to when it comes to science policy are:

➢ The Public Policy Briefing section of the monthly ASCB Newsletter ➢ The Coalition for the Life Sciences (CLS), a group the ASCB co-founded and still belongs to, operates a free grassroots advocacy program called the Congressional Liaison Committee (CLS). You can join the CLS at http://www.coalitionforlifesciences.org/be-an-advocate/cls-grassroots-advocacy.

CONTINUITY OF LEADERSHIP

The selection of future leaders of the group is probably the biggest challenge you will face. Since the long-term future of the group depends on future “generations” of leaders, don’t wait until the end of one term to find the next set of leaders. Succession should always be on your “to-do” list.

  1. Identify potential future leaders early and groom them. Get them involved in activities from the very beginning. They need to develop a stake in the future success of the group.
  2. Use the various leadership positions as the starting points for future senior leadership positions.
  3. Highlight to new members the importance of holding leadership positions and let them know that serving in the group’s leadership is not a significant time commitment.
  4. Encourage future leaders to attend a Capitol Hill Day.