Since many of our US readers are feeling jazzed about politics right about now, it is a good time to discuss Talking Points. You, DearReader, whether in the biomedical science biz or merely interested in some aspect of biomedical science, are the first line of attack in advocating for the continued health of our federally funded science enterprises. As we've all learned over the past 8 or even 16 years of US politics, crafting and honing messages to convey essential themes is critical to political success. Generating a mantra-chant and drumbeat of lemming feet on a consistent and limited set of bullet point topics is the way to cut through the noise and transmit the message. Call it framing or Talking Points or whatever you like.
I have a suggestion for how scientists may wish to approach their CongressCritters.
First of all, a point on contacting Congressional members. Bookmark the websites of your Representative and Senators. (Maybe put the office phone number in your list of contacts.) Do not bother to email directly. Do not use one of those auto-spam-bot things like CapWiz. Get in the habit of going to your CongressCritter's website and using his/her online form. Yes it is a pain but they don't pay any attention to CapWiz-generated or even direct emails anymore. Phone calls are always best but the web-form is the next best thing.
Ok, moving on to Talking Points. I recommend starting with the NIH award data by state. This will be important for talking with Senators, since they represent the entire state. Know where your state ranks in terms of overall dollars. In 2007 some of the biggest were CA ($3,163,252,176 from 7357 awards), MA ($2,236,110,071 / 5013), NY ($1,935,399,273 / 4792) PA ($1,399,307,660 / 3497) and TX ($1,083,464,922 / 2756 ). What should your message be? Well above all else why NIH funding for science is important, of course, but do concentrate on the constituency of the CongressCritter. Is your state a big recipient (either regionally or US-wide)? Talk about the fact that your Senator represents a big slice of the US biomedical research engine. Is your state a piker (Wyoming, what is UP? You are down there in the US territories levels of funding- big hitter Puerto Rico acquires a little under ten times the NIH funding that you do!)? Tell your Senator you need to catch up.
You have to work a little harder to get your NIH funding Talking Points together for your Congressional Representative. Click on the award listings for your state (CA, MA, NY, PA, TX) and you will get to the (local) institute-by-institute
awards identified by Congressional District number. (Did you ever wonder why Congressional District is included on the NIH application form?) You might want to figure out which are the RichiestRich Congressional districts, for example. You might confirm your subjective impression that a LOT of NIH money flows into the Boston area, Baltimore, San Diego, the Bay Area. Find out where all that money is going in PA and TX.
The true data geeks will want to go to this page and start downloading award spreadsheets.
What should your Talking Points be? Well I think it is always good to construct a story about the importance to the district. Generalized arguments about the global benefits of science are nice but...all politics is local. A Rep I have voted for in the past oversees a district that may very well be in the top 5 for NIH award dollars (I haven't exhausted the databases for every district). That was very salient to me and I would hope to the Critter as well. I was actually very surprised to find that the NIH was not a major (apparently) policy focus for this Representative. When writing a note, I like to add up the award dollar values and make sure I mention the major local recipients (Universities and Research Foundations/Institutes). I've lately taken to educating myself on all the low profile startup and narrow focus recipients, just to have a general idea of how many NIH funded institutions fly under the radar. My district has quite a number of those! If you are really keen you might even do a mental estimate of which ones are pure basic research and which ones are for-profit companies. The local district's economy is a big deal to CongressCritters. Telling them that NIH dollars help to launch for-profit private enterprises plays very well, I would think.
One additional thing that I have found in this process is that eventually you may come to the attention of the staffer who is responsible for biomedical or health care issues in the CongressCritter's office. This person may actually call you to get some additional viewpoints...at this point you are a resource for this staffer! I get the impression that the staffers have to compete for the Critter's attention as well and s/he needs your help in making NIH and biomedical science issues salient to your representative. You would think that the staffers would be all over this information but when you think about the breadth of federal stuff that affects even a single district it should be no surprise that the staff may not really understand the NIH at all. Even if the district is very well funded. That's a big WIN if you can get to the point of informing a specific staff member in a more personalized context of phone or email exchange.