By Sarah Stefanos
University of Wisconsin, Madison

As a sociologist and environmental scientist with a longstanding interest in how rigorous science can inform national policy, I was delighted to receive the African Studies Association’s Advocacy Award this year. Representing the African Studies Association (ASA) in the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) for advocacy on Capitol Hill was quite exciting.

My advocacy experience consisted of the Advocacy Day Prep Seminar (April 30) and Social Science Advocacy Day on the Hill (May 1), both of which offered fascinating insights into the legislative process.

One of the highlights of the Advocacy Day Prep Seminar was the talk by Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer, Emeritus, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). I found myself laughing and exchanging knowing glances with fellow academics as he gave us some valuable nuggets of advice for advocating for social science in discussions with staffers on the Hill:

  1. Listen; don’t harangue
  2. People don’t like uncertainty so don’t focus on uncertainty
  3. Take a global issue and apply it to the local level
  4. Tell stories – short stories
  5. Hyperbole is the enemy of credibility, and finally,
  6. No caveats and no clauses because people only hear sound bites.

That last point on not qualifying claims struck me because I was reminded of how some of the most effective politicians speak in plain, simple terms that are easy for people to understand. Alan relayed a personal anecdote in which years ago he began telling legislators, “Addiction is a brain disease.” Full stop. He received criticism from his fellow psychologists for not offering nuance or a fuller explanation of his point, but Alan emphasized that his message resonated with members of Congress.

Social Science Advocacy Day on the Hill started bright and early and I and the other two members of the Wisconsin/Ohio advocacy team made sure to properly caffeinate. I felt lucky to have an amazing team – Ruchika Prakash, a dynamo Associate Professor of Psychology at the Ohio State University, and Ben Goodrich, a recent (fellow) University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate and COSSA staff assistant.

The three of us logged quite a number of miles during our six meetings that day at Ohio and Wisconsin. Ruchika and I were armed with stories of how the social science we did was relevant to national interests and Ben was great at pitching our three “asks” to each office:

  1. Raise the (budget) caps that threaten discretionary spending in fiscal years 2020 and 2021
  2. Offer strong support in fiscal year 2020 for federal agencies that fund and use social science and behavioral research
  3. Use us as resources (as experts in your state) when topics/issues arise for which it would be helpful to use the latest science.

Our team had substantive, wide-ranging discussions with legislative correspondents and assistants from the offices of Senator Tammy Baldwin, Representative Mark Pocan, and Senator Rob Johnson, all of Wisconsin. We had conversations about everything from mental health and healthy aging to drug pricing. I talked about my research on private sector Ethiopian land investment and how it could help us understand foreign investment in US farmland, as well as the nexus between energy and agriculture in Uganda and those same synergies between dairy farms and biodigesters in Wisconsin. Staffers were happy to report that their offices strongly supported federal agencies that fund social and behavioral science research.

On visits to Ohio congressional offices, we also had interesting and sometimes impassioned conversations. Sara Bell, a legislative assistant for Senator Rob Portman’s office spoke animatedly of her concerns about maternal and infant mortality rates, especially those for African-American women and children. A former social worker, Sara was also deeply interested in learning about research on interventions to reduce addiction of all kinds, but especially opioid and burgeoning methamphetamine addiction. In other offices, we conversed about the decrease in Americans pursuing graduate study, especially as research funding seems more precarious.

These conversations offered me a sense of hope that I haven’t felt in a while – regardless of political affiliation, many people are working hard to address important issues in this country. By the end of the day, I was exhausted but also happy. You never know if one small story or conversation will help a legislative staffer think differently about an issue or develop a renewed appreciation for the power of social science research. I highly recommend taking the time to advocate for social science research funding (particularly for African Studies) if you are presented with the opportunity. Thank you, ASA, for supporting such advocacy efforts!