How to Host a Congressional Visit at Your Entomological Research Facility
By Ashley Kennedy, Ph.D., BCE-Intern; and Joe M. Kaser, Ph.D.
Outreach in entomology is critical to cultivating an informed public. Educating our broader community about the importance (and general awesomeness) of the world of insects and about the value of the research entomologists do is necessary because of the innumerable ways in which insects affect human lives and human activities affect ecosystems and biodiversity.
One particularly important form of outreach is targeted communication to policymakers. Effective outreach to members of congress (or their counterparts at the state and local level) can have a magnified impact, but it may seem like a daunting task, especially for the majority of us who have no experience working in politics or the policy space.
You probably know that you can visit the offices of your legislators at the capital (DC or state), but for those who live far from a capital, this may be an impractical or unaffordable option. Maybe you really want to show your representatives why the work you do is so important, in an interactive, hands-on setting. In either case, inviting your senator, representative, or other elected official to do a workplace tour in their home district is a great way to communicate your science.
In August, many Congresspeople will be home for recess, and this is a great time to connect with them, while state and local officials are typically more accessible year-round. Below we will take you through how you can organize a congressional visit to your workplace, using lessons learned from two recent visits to a U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service facility on the University of Delaware campus.
Make a Congressional Visit a Success
1. Ensure you have institutional approval to extend the invitation to your representatives. That may mean speaking with your department head, station research leader, or office of ethics to make sure you follow guidelines. At the Agricultural Research Service, outreach is a key part of the mission, but federal employees are not allowed to lobby, and it is important to not ask for any specific legislation, appropriation, or policy or to be perceived as doing so.
2. Call your legislator’s office. At the federal level, senators and representatives have both a Washington, DC, office and a home district office. Try calling both of them to cover your bases. When communicating, you can leverage your institutional connections and the impact of your research to your representative’s constituents. In our case (one federal scientist, one University of Delaware graduate student, both of us Entomological Society of America Science Policy Fellows), we emphasized our work on invasive agricultural pests and our work in conservation and education. Learn about which committees and caucuses the congressperson serves on so that you can target the things they care about or are responsible for. This information is often available on the congressperson’s website, sometimes embedded within their biographical page.
3. Follow up your phone calls with emails and written letters. You may have to extend the invitation multiple times—legislative offices are hectic and a lot of correspondence naturally falls through the cracks. While you are addressing the letter to the congressperson, realize that you are most likely communicating with a staffer. As an alternative, you may be able to get a response by participating in the American Institute of Biological Sciences’ Congressional District Visits program.
4. If your invitation is accepted, make the visit an easy process. Make sure you communicate the details about how to get to your facility, where your visitors should park, what they should wear, and what they can expect. Will they be meeting with just a couple of people or the whole team? Are they going into a lab or a soybean field? Be prepared to be flexible and maybe be canceled on—but keep at it! We were cancelled on by one congressperson when they suddenly faced a primary challenger, but we kept in touch, and after the election we were able to reschedule an enjoyable and interesting visit.
5. Be goal-oriented, and have a good idea of what you want to get out of the visit ahead of time. If multiple researchers from your institution will be participating in the visit, meet ahead of time to establish clear goals. If you are a non-federal employee, decide if you have a specific “ask” (e.g., do you want them to fund an agency at a certain level for the upcoming fiscal year?) or if you just want to educate them on a particular topic.
If you work for a federal research laboratory, you need to follow ethics guidelines and not lobby for money. It is perfectly okay to talk about the value of the research you are doing; disseminating information about your research to a broad audience may, in fact, be part of your official duties. If you work in a federal lab, the visit cannot be construed as a campaign stop for congresspeople, so make that clear if you feel it is necessary.
6. On the day of the visit, dress nicely and make sure your workplace looks presentable, too! Take pictures, but ask first if it’s okay with the representative!
7. Apply general science communication guidelines (avoid jargon). Stay on-message and avoid discussing other issues. Don’t argue with them about your political disagreements; in fact, it’s better not to discuss politics at all if it is unrelated to the field of entomology. For us, each congressperson’s visit was slightly different. While one was extremely interested in the details of the science we do, the other was much more interested in learning about the backgrounds and personal interests of our research staff.
8. To make the visit more interactive and memorable, consider using displays or “props.” These could be a live insect zoo, museum specimens, collecting equipment, lab techniques, and so forth. Or your visitor might be interested in putting on a bee veil or lab coat for a photo opp, for instance. We were able to take the congressional visitors on a guided tour of our quarantine facility where we study invasive species and candidate biological control agents. They really seemed to enjoy viewing up-close live insects, like the Asian longhorn beetle and tiny parasitoids of the brown marmorated stink bug.
9. Follow-up in the days after the visit to thank your visitors. This is a good way to keep the conversation going. Perhaps share photos you took or attach some easy-to-read documents about topics you discussed (e.g. the Entomological Society of America has some excellent infographics and informative position statements). Answer any questions they asked in cases where you didn’t know the answers at the time of their visit. Continue to maintain this valuable relationship going forward. Outreach to policy makers is a long game.
A Springboard for Future Entomological Advocacy
Hosting a congressional visit can be fun and a great learning experience. By talking to legislators about how our work is important, we can inform powerful individuals about how their decisions affect the systems and organisms we care so much about. Moreover, the personal connection may make you an accessible resource for them in the future as entomological problems inevitably come up in their states and districts. What better resource than a trained entomologist!
“Entomology Advocacy Week 2019,” August 18-24
Entomological Society of America
Ashley Kennedy, Ph.D., BCE-Intern, is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Postdoctoral Fellow at the Army Public Health Center’s Tick-Borne Disease Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, and an ESA Science Policy Fellow. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe M. Kaser, Ph.D., is a research entomologist at the USDA-ARS Beneficial Insects Introduction Research Unit in Newark, Delaware, and an ESA Science Policy Fellow. Email: email@example.com.