Advocating for more than money

Published July 01 2019

When I write about the actions of Congress, I often focus on appropriations and funding. And rightly so. As glucose fuels the mitochondria in a cell, Congress’ support for federal science-funding agencies fuels the engine that powers American leadership in research and innovation. So it’s no surprise that the 12 appropriations bills our legislators wrangle each year get the lion’s share of my ink.

But Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time. Hundreds of bills are introduced every year in both the House and the Senate, and only a small fraction of those have a direct effect on funding the agencies we care about. In fact, people I talk to are often surprised when I tell them we spend at least half our time on Capitol Hill talking about things other than money for science.

Right now, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology public affairs team is tracking more than 100 pieces of legislation; these focus on topics such as sexual harassment in science; rules and regulations that dictate how federal advisory committees (and review panels) operate; and a package of bills to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs in higher education. You may be familiar with that last bit from our spring advocacy campaign.

Many bills are introduced but don’t become law. In the 115th Congress (January 2017 through January 2019), some 13,000 pieces of legislation were introduced, and only 3% (443) were enacted. The failure rate for legislation is high, but we learn a lot even from bills that never come to a vote.

Introduced legislation helps us identify which members of Congress truly support the American scientific enterprise. By tracking who introduces what pieces of legislation, we know where to focus our resources and build relationships. If a member of Congress introduces a bill to support STEM scholarship programs, for example, we know we can go to that member when we want to discuss policies that will support the next generation of scientists.

This year — for the first time — our advocacy efforts have moved beyond Washington, D.C., to state capitals. Studies show that state legislatures are more effective at passing legislation than Congress, with some data suggesting states are six times more successful at enacting laws than the federal government.

With that in mind, the ASBMB public affairs team recently worked with J.P. Sredzinski, a Republican who represents the communities of Monroe and Sandy Hook in the Connecticut House of Representatives and a friend of mine, to draft legislation supporting a state program to retain minority STEM students in public colleges and universities. We researched the issue, helped draft the bill’s language and testified before a joint committee on higher education in Hartford, Conn. The legislation received bipartisan support and was passed out of committee before it stalled due to the estimated cost of implementation.

We will review and modify the bill and then work with Sredzinski to reintroduce it in the next legislative session. While our proposal stalled (like 97% of bills in Congress), we built new partnerships that will serve us well in the future.

Like scientific research, advocacy is a long game. We need persistence and patience if we’re going to see future successes. And like working at the bench, our efforts include a lot of trial and error.

Benjamin Corb Benjamin Corb is director of public affairs at ASBMB. Follow him on Twitter.