Dr. Brian Baird addresses effective communication to Legislators

As the final seminar in the COSEE-Ocean Learning Communities (http://www.cosee.net) /Washington Sea Grant series “Beyond the Ivory Tower”, former Washington State Congressman Dr. Brian Baird was invited to speak about how scientists and their science is perceived by legislators and the necessity for clearly defining goals and the societal importance of your research in order to obtain state funding and support.

Dr. Baird is a licensed clinical psychologist and has a long history of commitment to science and education, and while a Congressman for Washington’s 3rd District sat on the Committee on Science and Technology where was a member of the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education and chaired the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

By outlining the severity of the US financial crisis, Dr. Baird began by showing several videos from well known Federal legislators who have taken dramatic steps to call scientific research into question, highlighting Representative Adrian Smith’s YouCut initiatives in which he asked his constituency to identify grants funded by NSF that they did not feel merited the spending of tax payer dollars.

Further, he emphasized that when interacting with politicians, there are three major ways that scientists communicate their ideas:
1. Written testimony, very comprehensive, often 10-15 pages long
2. Reading for committees in person, usually 5-10 minutes with a question and answer period.
3. The one minute “walk and talk” elevator speech. The key here is make your point quickly and give the politician a “leave behind”, a document or other item that either makes your point in a concise synthesis or an easy reminder.

By highlighting the difficulties legislators face when making funding decisions, Dr. Baird unscored the need for scientists to communicate with them. Among the most important points that scientists need to keep in mind
1. Ask yourself how important your research is. If money earmarked for a cause that everyone supports, such as breast cancer research, is your research as important as breast cancer research funding?
2. Determine a way to communicate with why your research is important. Use specific examples.
3. Legislation is a balancing act, and often your research can be absolutely crucial, however if a legislator cannot convince his/her constituency of this, they are at risk of losing their seat, even though empirical observations may support your work.
4. To prepare for communicating with legislators, you should find out as much as you can about the members of the subcommittee. Who is the chair? Who are the ranking members? Read the description of the purpose of the hearing very carefully. Establish friends ahead of time and offer intelligence that may allow them to better support your premise in light of adversity.
5. Scientists spend too much time talking to other people who understand their research. Put your information in language and that anyone can understand and prepare yourself by talking to others who do not have the same background.

The seminar culminated in four role play scenarios that actually happened while he was a member of the Washington Legislature, highlighting the differences between preconceived notions and how people can be persuaded by well constructed arguments.

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