Not your standard advocacy

“Send a letter to your member of Congress NOW!”
“Come to Washington, D.C., to meet with your legislators!”

You’ve probably seen these and similar emails from the Office of Public Affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. We encourage you to send letters, make phone calls and conduct meetings to influence how legislators vote. But methods for advocating are constantly changing, and we are always looking for new ways to amplify the voices of scientists.

Recently we sponsored a Hack Day to help postdoctoral scholars advocate on behalf of their community. A Hack Day, or hack-a-thon, engages people to work in a short timeframe to solve a well-defined set of problems. For this Hack Day, the ASBMB partnered with Future of Research, a group of postdoc activists working to improve the postdoc experience who were recently named the 2015 Science Careers People of the Year.

Winners of the ASBMB/FOR Hack Day

Winning project 1, by Dana King, Kelley Kranjc, Steen Hoyer, Mayank Choudhary, Vasavi Sundaram, Shuxiang Ruan and Hemangi Chaudari: The project cross-referenced data from the National Science Foundation and Washington University in St. Louis to get a better grasp on career outcomes for Ph.Ds. This group also created a choose-your-own-adventure game. More information about the project can be found here.

Winning project 2, by Alberto Roca, Rebecca Lowdon and Erica Walsh: This project used data from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics to address the number of minority postdocs across the U.S. by combining data sets to determine the postdocs’ geographic location. More information about the project can be found at here.

The ASBMB/FOR Hack Day took place at the 2015 Boston FOR symposium. It lasted 14 hours and challenged attendees either to hone methods of collecting data about postdoc careers or to devise ways to improve the presentation of this information. Five groups, ranging from three to seven members, participated in the event. Three independent judges evaluated the groups’ submissions, and two winners were chosen (see box).

Among other issues, the postdocs who attended the Hack Day were advocating for better pay and benefits and improved data collection on postdoc career opportunities. The targets of this advocacy are universities and federal science-funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Ultimately, the Hack Day projects created new tools to help postdocs strengthen their arguments when communicating with policymakers at these and similar institutions.

Another tool that is improving direct advocacy efforts these days is Twitter. This microblogging site allows for rapid dissemination of messages, and most news outlets that publish breaking news publicize their stories on Twitter. Similarly, nearly every member of Congress has a Twitter account, as do most federal agencies including the NIH, the NSF, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

During ASBMB Capitol Hill Days, we encourage our participants to send tweets to the offices they’ve visited as a way to say thank you and to reinforce our message. This not only continues conversations begun during the meetings but allows those not present for our Hill Day to take part virtually. Growing the conversation in this manner is an important way to convey to policymakers the sheer number of scientists interested in specific topics.

Advocacy can take forms other than sending letters, making phone calls or conducting meetings. By analyzing new data and finding new stories to tell policymakers, we can be more effective advocates of the importance of research. And engaging these policymakers through nonconventional means like Twitter can both amplify our message and provide us more direct access to those who are writing the laws and regulations that will affect how research is done.

Photo of Chris Pickett Chris Pickett is a policy analyst at the ASBMB. Follow his postings on the ASBMB Policy Blotter at policy.asbmb.org.