I had the opportunity to visit senate offices and speak with staffers at the recent ACS conference. The visits were sponsored through the ACS Office of Public Affairs and organized through local sections government affairs liaisons. Since this was my first visit to the Hart Senate Office Building, I thought it would be of interest to share my impressions of the experience lobbying aides and pushing policy points.
The senator’s staff are held up in a rather nondescript looking office building.[Pic] As you walk into the building, there is a security guard and metal detector setup. You place your items to be x-rayed, like at an airport except these guards are much more friendly. Oddly, you don’t need to be in the books, anyone can just walk in. The lobby of the building is imposing and there are no places to sit! There are also no water fountains! If you’re thirsty you will have to beg for water from whichever senator’s staff you are there to visit.
As I’m a Californian, my task was to speak with staffers for Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein. First up was Barbara Boxer. The California contingent consisted of 10 chemists that spanned the breadth of the state and ranged from academics, to industry, to government employees. When you walk into the office area, I admired how well everybody dressed. It was not like how a Chemist dresses “fancy” (i.e. dark dress shirt and light-colored pants, whether the shoes match is a craps shoot). All the male workers wore nice suits that matched with itself, the women were dressed in a formal professional attire that I have never seen before. First was the exchange of small pieces of paper with the receptionist. Unbeknown to me, it is strongly recommended that you have a business card to hand the receptionist. The receptionist will run off and photocopy all of them and give the copy to the aide so they are in a better position to know who they are talking to. The waiting area is decorated with US flags and pictures of the state. Much of Boxer’s front office was actually covered with the names of Californians who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were then moved to a conference room within the office and finally got to meet the staffer.
The staffer in this case was a legislative assistant. From what I could gather they are on the 3rd rung of the hierarchy, if we assign the 1st rung to the senators. They report the topics of the meetings to their supervisor and the senator. As we get introductions out of the way it is clear the staffer is very confused and not quite sure how to handle us. I think she was expecting smooth talking, hard core lobbyists, trying to make a hard sales pitch. What she found was a collection of 10 chemists sitting in a room having as much a good time telling stories to her and each other. The purpose of the visit was to explain to her how important stable science funding is to research and the goal was to ask for an increase in a k-12 spending bill from 175 million to 450 million. At one point in the meeting a couple of chemists became really animated and started raising their voices with each other and discussing how California state bureaucrats were making things worse back home. The staffer seemed a bit frightened about this, and claimed she has no control over how the state legislature does their business. From my perspective it was normal chemist behavior. We will often raise our voice, start speaking fast, and become animated when we find something worth arguing about. Apparently lobbyists arguing with each other is a strange and foreign concept and does not happen in the senator’s office (mental note). I think by the end the staffer finally understood she wasn’t dealing with real lobbyists in as much as a cross-section of concerned citizenry.
Next up was Feinstein’s office. We regrouped and restrategized. It was decided that it would be bad form to argue with each other again and tell stories. This time we were actually successful in finishing going around the room and introducing ourselves. We spent 2-3 minutes each discussing how science funding has helped us develop professionally. We were so successful we even made it to the pitch. We asked whether Feinstein would support an increase in funding for so-so-bill in fiscal year 2011. At this point we were asked what the additional funding would be used for. Unfortunately, none of us knew and we said we would email the sheet in a follow-up email. We all forgot to bring that sheet of paper. D’oh! At any rate, just asking why there needed to be more education funding opened up a can of worms amongst the chemists that lasted the rest of the meeting. From any independent viewpoint it is obvious that science education in the United States is slipping. Some argued this through certain reports by the RAND corporation, some argued this through the drop in science papers from the US, others just used anecdotal evidence.
Overall, I would venture to say our performance helped the cause more than it hurt, but it is clear to me that chemists make bad lobbyists.
Epilogue: I extracted the humor from my visit to give you a more interesting story to read. However, it would still behoove chemists to become comfortable communicating in the language of policy. The most valuable lesson I took from the experience was that I have more then a passing interest in policy, and the next time I pitch to a senator’s aide they better be ready for a well versed policy exchange with a chemist.