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A Post-Election Washington D.C.: The ESA Science Policy Fellows’ Perspective

The 2014 and 2015 ESA Science Policy Fellows cohorts outside of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington D.C.

By Johanna Elsensohn on behalf of the 2014 and 2015 Science Policy Fellows (Marianne Alleyne, Thomas Anderson, Jamin Dreyer, Kamal Gandhi, Anders Huseth, Rayda Krell, Clare Rittschof, Ariel Rivers, and Helen Spafford)

The 2014 and 2015 ESA Science Policy (SP) Fellows visited Washington, D.C., the week after the November election, and one thing was clear: Similar to every other change of presidential leadership, the incoming presidential administration will enact changes that differ from their predecessor. At the moment, it’s hard to predict how these changes will impact science policy and science funding. This visit brought the SP Fellows into the offices of a number of scientists at different levels within the outgoing Obama Administration and several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with global health agendas. In our meetings, instead of uncertainty, general themes of resiliency and resolve emerged.

Johanna Elsensohn

ESA’s message. Fundamentally, the goals of the Entomological Society of America (ESA)—and the needs of entomologists—will not change as a result of this election. Administrative shifts require repackaging messages that speak to different priorities, so we may need to alter how we communicate our research. Some topics considered to be divisive may need to be reframed—without compromising the underlying science—and incorporate creative new approaches to how we think and write about our science. While some third-party organizations have taken stances on controversial subjects, ESA has remained nonpartisan and focused on the value of the scientific information we generate, helping ESA maintain productive relationships with many federal offices.

Credibility as currency. The credibility of an organization is based on its members, time, and responsiveness. As we continue to foster our relationships on Capitol Hill, the perspective that ESA is a knowledgeable scientific resource will only continue to grow. We heard from several offices about the importance of personal connections and networks in generating credibility. While in-person SP Fellow visits with congressional offices are a vital component, an open and continuous dialogue on both sides of the political aisle will make ESA an asset when entomological issues arise. Our 7,000+ members have the expertise to help respond to new or continuing crises and ESA’s advocacy firm, Lewis-Burke Associates LLC, helps us to maintain regular contact with stakeholders on the Hill.

Responsiveness. Timing can be everything; the ability to be proactive is essential in D.C. On one hand, funding cycles are predictable and agency budgets usually don’t change drastically from year to year. On the other hand, outbreaks of new invasive species or pathogens are irregular in both occurrence and severity.

Trying to prepare for an unknown threat is akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Instead, we need to focus on the response. For example, taxonomists and associated national entomological collections are invaluable in providing species identifications of new invasive species that threaten our natural resources.  Yet, funding for our collections have been drastically reduced. It is important to communicate that dedicated resources to collect, assemble, and summarize information at the beginning of a crisis will allow policymakers to make better decisions in real time using reliable information.

Communication is key. An oft-quoted saying in Washington is, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Apropos of the recent American Thanksgiving holiday, the federal budget “pie” is only so big, and many organizations have different ideas for how it should be sliced. The SP Fellows, along with Lewis-Burke and others at ESA, ensure the entomology agenda is at the table.

Just as 10 voices are better than one, 7,000 voices are more likely to be noticed. Visiting D.C. isn’t the only way to get involved in science policy; email and phone calls are effective, especially from constituent entomologists, and Members of Congress may prove easier to contact while on recess (Congress next adjourns December 16) when they are likely to be in their district.

Many fundamental management decisions are made in our own backyard at the local office. The wheels of national government turn very slowly and administrative policies take a long time to gain any traction. To have a more immediate impact and influence closer to home, it is important to engage with government at the local and state levels. Entomologists can influence the discussions and decisions by reaching out to local leadership (ESA’s Science Policy web pages include a link to a tool to find your local representatives).

A well-timed op-ed article in a mainstream newspaper can catch the attention of many audiences simultaneously. Policymakers have a demanding schedule full of issues other than science, so the onus is on us to both initiate and persist in our communications.

Entomology has bipartisan support! Many entomologists work on problems that have broad support across the political spectrum. For example, representatives from two NGOs we met with, the U.N. Foundation and PATH, are encouraged by past bipartisan support for malaria efforts. Similarly, the main goals of ESA’s Grand Challenge Agenda support decreasing global disease burden, increasing food security through sustainable agriculture, and controlling invasive species. These are complex problems that affect millions of Americans of all parties at home and abroad (e.g., the military) and require entomological research to develop solutions. No matter who is in the Oval Office, these issues won’t be solved any time soon. We need to be ready to contribute to the discussion and provide evidence-based solutions, keeping in mind the importance of tailoring our message and engaging policymakers on the aspects of these challenges that they and their constituents most value.

This visit in particular highlighted the vital importance of scientists working in Washington, whether in the executive, judicial, or legislative branch. While ESA is a great resource for policymakers, increasing the scientific employee base in D.C. could have a significant impact. There are a number of programs that encourage scientists to become involved in federal work, including AAAS and NAS.

ESA’s current policy initiatives are aimed at encouraging ALL members of our society to take a more active role in explaining our science, serving as resources for policymakers, and being proactive in contacting those in power that can affect our ability to continue rigorous entomological work. If you would like to learn how to get more involved, please contact any of the SP Fellows! As always, ESA’s Science Policy web pages are a great place to start.

Photo caption: The 2014 and 2015 ESA Science Policy Fellows cohorts outside of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington D.C. on November 15, 2016, preparing for a meeting with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Pictured (l to r, back row) are Rayda Krell, Jamin Dreyer, Ariel Rivers, Tom Anderson, Clare Rittschof, Anders Huseth, Marianne Alleyne, Helen Spafford, and Chris Stelzig (ESA staff). Front row (l to r) are Kamal Gandhi and Johanna Elsensohn.

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