This post is by UT Austin postdoc Tessa Solomon-Lane. Tessa is working with Hans Hofmann (UT Austin), Travis Hagey (MSU), and Alexa Warwick (MSU) on public engagement at BEACON.
The second annual full-day BEACON Public Engagement Workshop at the University of Texas at Austin was a success! Interestingly, a distinct theme emerged: human sociality.
Engaging effectively with the public about science requires 1) connecting with your audience, 2) framing your message in a way that resonates, and 3) delivering your message using language and a medium (e.g., online, face-to-face) appropriate for the topic and the audience. How do we do each of these steps well? The evidence-based best practices for public engagement largely revolve around the fact that humans are highly social. Engagement is about relationship building. Need to connect with your audience? Appear warm and trustworthy, and build a sense of togetherness using values and goals that you and your audience share. How to best frame your message? Learn about your audience (or even better, choose your audience based on your goals). What do they know about your topic and why do they care? What is the best way to deliver your message? Use platforms that your target audience already uses to get their information (e.g., in the classroom, science blog) and language the audience understands, appreciates, and establishes you as a part of the group. (You will be a middle school hero if you describe the functions of the hypothalamus brain region as the four F’s: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproduction.) Even online, the “personal” connection matters. Read more in our blog Frame your science to make it accessible, including for your representative.
Connecting with your audience: The Story of Self, the Story of Us, and the Story of Now
We are at a moment in history when evidence-based decision-making, critical thinking, and scientific inquiry appear under attack, and political leaders regularly amplify false claims by dangerous anti-science groups. How do we practice communication strategically as a fundamentally social endeavor, rather than a doomed mission to spread facts? Connect with your audience with your public narrative. The framework for building this public narrative is called the Story of Self, the Story of Us, the Story of Now, developed by Marshall Ganz, a Senior Policy Lecturer at Harvard University. The Story of Self is one that shares why you are called to the work you are doing. The Story of Us expands to understand how you and the audience share the goals or values related to that work. The Story of Now describes why this is a challenge we are facing in this moment.
We used the worksheet developed by the American Association of University Women to build our Stories of Self. Try it out for yourself! Practice with a friend by telling your narrative in 2 minutes and getting feedback for 1 minute. Then switch. It will take a few rounds to get comfortable and even more practice to polish your public narrative. Do you have a Science Story of Self, Story of Us, Story of Now? Mine involves the social strategies of preschoolers.
How to be heard by policy makers
We were very pleased to welcome Stephanie Chiarello Noppenberg, senior policy analyst for Texas State Senator Kirk Watson, community educator, and improv comedian, to share the best practices for engaging with public policy and policy makers. Her top take home message: do more than nothing.
There are many different ways to engage with your local, state, and federal representatives, including by email or snail mail, calling or visiting their offices, testifying in committee, writing an op-ed or letter to the editor, protesting and rallying, attending a town hall, and more. Your message, when you contact your representative, should be concise and consistent, and you should have a clear ask. What do you want them to do? Sharing your personal connection or professional expertise on an issue also makes your message more compelling, and you may be contacted for more information. It is also important to do your homework. Your state representative may be happy you called, but they cannot help with federal issues. Learning about your representative (your audience) will also inform when to say “thank you” vs. “how could you?!” Whenever possible, it is critical to find common ground—your Story of Us—and build from there.
In addition to your representatives, also consider contacting the authors and co-authors of important bills, and members of committees. Representatives who have not signed onto a bill you disagree with are also your allies. Don’t have the time? Find a trustworthy organization and support them, financially, with your time, and/or with your skills. Data science skills, in particular, are in high demand!
Perspectives on serving in the Texas House of Representatives
Representative Donna Howard has served Texas District 48 since 2006. She is nurse by training who has served in critical care and health education settings. What is it like being an evidence-based thinker in the Texas Legislature? What lessons does Texas have for us nationally and as scientists? Rep Howard shared that her work can be hard, but progress can be made, and there are important ways scientists can make a difference.
Politicians are limited by how much they know, but they still must vote on all legislation. As a result, the flow of information is incredibly important. Staffers (like graduate students) play a central role, bringing issues to the table and doing the background research. In fact, the similarities to research make staffers a potentially very productive relationship. Staffers routinely reach out to a network of experts, including at universities. Scientists can proactively reach out to share their areas of expertise, with the goal of eventually joining that trusted network. Lobbyists also deal in information. From Rep Howard’s perspective, the practice of lobbying is not inherently unethical. Issues arise when politicians allow themselves to be bought. As constituents, we can and must bring issues to the attention of our representatives. In fact, Rep Howard has passed legislation on an issue raised by a constituent.
More and more, information pipelines are being politicized and discredited. It is essential that we be able to collect data and be open to the information it reveals. As scientists, these challenges are in our wheelhouse. We also deal in information. We have context for what it means to not know what we don’t know. Also like us, politicians grapple with the need to communicate complex information in a simple but accurate format. This is another area in which scientists with data visualization skills can contribute!
Despite the focus on information and evidence-based policies, Rep Howard stressed that politics is social at its core. Success comes from building coalitions. When facing a challenge, she recommends bringing everyone to the table. Build relationships across the ideological spectrum. Be trustworthy, credible, and reliable. This social capitol can make or break legislation. Simply having the right people standing with you on the House floor can sway votes. To maintain these relationships, it is important to give credit where credit is due and not to demonize others. “Today’s opponents are tomorrow’s supporters!” Unsurprisingly, insults and fact-waiving do not lead to agreement and support. Finally, Rep Howard shared, it is possible for personal stories to overcome moneyed interests. Stories of Self ultimately saved Texas from a discriminatory bathroom bill.
Special thanks to Representative Donna Howard and Stephanie Chiarello Noppenberg for sharing their expertise and experiences. Thank you to Jamarr Brown of Planned Parenthood for contributing to the development of the workshop. Finally, thank you to Brittany Yelverton from the Girls Empowerment Network for connecting me with Rep. Howard, Stephanie, and Jamarr.