Want to invite your member of Congress to see your lab?

These scientists have tips to guide you.

Giving a tour of your research facilities to your Members of Congress not only provides them with a clear picture of what psychological science is, it shows psychology as an asset to their congressional district and state. Is your lab a good candidate for a site visit?  And if it is, how do you put one together?  We have gathered tips from several psychologists who managed successful site visits in 2014 to help guide you.  

Ken Sher, University of Missouri; Craig Stevenson, University of Missouri; James Topolski, University of Missouri, St. Louis; Cindy Hall, district director for Sen. Claire McCaskill

Kenneth Sher, along with Scott Frey and James Topolski, gave a tour of University of Missouri- Columbia labs to Cindy Hall, regional director for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo). Sher, of the Department of Psychological Sciences, described his National Institutes of Health-funded research on underage drinking, alcohol and campus sexual assault, including sexual assault in the military (a signature issue for Sen. McCaskill). Frey, of the same department, demonstrated how his NIH and Department of Defense-funded brain imaging research can be used to help veterans with traumatic limb loss. And Topolksi, of the Missouri Institute of Mental Health, discussed his research involving treatment of opiate- and alcohol-abusing drug court parolees with the drug Naltrexone

Dr. Sharon Wilsnack and Tom Brusegaard, Regional Director for Senator John Hoeven (R-ND).

Sharon Wilsnack invited the regional director for U.S. Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) to visit the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, where they discussed her NIH-funded work on alcohol abuse. 

Senator Deborah Stabenow (D-MI) and Dr. Gary Dunbar during their visit

Gary Dunbar put together a larger tour of multiple labs at Central Michigan University, where Sen. Deborah Stabenow (D-MI) and several staff members learned about Dunbar’s animal research focused on Huntington’s disease along with the work of colleagues and students. 

First, is your lab a good candidate for a tour? 

 Sher and Dunbar both say that if you have something to show, a tour is a good idea. You need some visual interest. Sher advises psychologists to provide some variety within the visit, so that the Member or congressional staff person gets to see more than one research area. “It’s hard to predict what’s going to be of most interest to them, and involving a couple of colleagues whose research complements yours is a good way to make broader points about the utility of psychological science. I was glad we were able to demonstrate use of the MRI machine.  Don’t underestimate the “wow factor” of technology.”

Who should you invite to participate from your university?

These psychologists all involved their university public or legislative affairs staff.  “We were glad the legislative staff was there, in case the congressional staff member had a question about other university activities that we weren’t familiar with,” said Sher.

 A Member visit is an important event and high ranking university officials might show up. “Our provost attended the tour,” said Dunbar, “and it was the first time he had seen our labs! So that was great for us.”

What should you know before contacting your local congressional office to schedule the visit?

Your U.S. House Representative may be at the local office almost every week.  A Senator may only come through a few times a year.  The local office will likely want an invitation in writing. Call first to find out what information is needed to get a spot on the Member’s schedule. The Member of Congress may not be available, but giving a tour to a senior staff member or two is a good alternative.

Each of our three advisers say that scientists need to be flexible in scheduling and managing the site visit. “Congressional schedules can change quickly,” said Dunbar, “so you have to be willing to move things around to accommodate last minute changes.”

How should you structure the visit? 

Wilsnack advised, “Think carefully about the points you want to make during the visit, including about the importance of science funding. (Use APA briefing sheets to underscore those points.) The focus of my research – alcohol use and abuse – is a major health and social problem that directly or indirectly affects most individuals and families in the U.S.  It is particularly salient in North Dakota, which has the dubious distinction of ranking in the top few U.S. states in rates of both underage and adult binge drinking.  So using my research on psychosocial aspects of alcohol problems as an example of the importance of social and behavioral research was an ‘easy sell’ with the congressional staffers.”

Sher added: “Be sure you know how much time you will have and be careful to stay within the time limits.”

Do you need to rehearse? 

Your site visit is a high stakes event, for you, for psychology, for your university.  Don’t leave important details to chance. Make sure everyone involved knows about time limits and the visit’s focus and purpose. 

Documentation

Provide some written information for the Member of Congress or staffer about the research you are presenting and about the issues you want to talk about. Keep it simple. Don’t forget to take photos!  Wilsnack’s secretary took photographs during the congressional staffer’s visit to her facility.  She then sent copies of several photos to the staffer, who expressed his appreciation in a follow-up note thanking her for the visit.

 Follow up 

I called the office of my representative to urge him to vote against the FIRST Act (last year’s HR 4186) and was able to speak to the staffer, who remembered me.
— Dr. Wilsnack

A site visit is a change to build connections. Following up with the office is important. Send thank you notes to all who participate. You never know when you might need their ear, so make a good impression.

A checklist based on this advice will soon be posted on the APA Science Government Relations Office’s new advocacy website:  http://advocacy.apascience.org.

 If you’re considering inviting your member of Congress to see your lab, contact us at the APA Science Government Relations Office. We are glad to help you navigate some of the details.