My path to active policy engagement
began when a graduate student and
I stumbled into studying a common
but relatively unstudied birth defect. Congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), in which the diaphragm
muscle does not develop properly,
ultimately kills 50% of afflicted infants. After the excitement of publishing our research, I realized that I
knew little about how this birth defect actually affects people’s lives. So
I reached out to Cherubs, a community of CDH patients and parents,
which enthusiastically embraced my
lab and me. In 2015, when I heard
the group was lobbying Congress
for increased research funding, I decided to join the effort. I was curious
whether our concerns would resonate with our elected officials.
We visited more than a dozen
members of Congress. The highlight was a discussion with
then-Senator Jeff Sessions (R–AL), whose grandson is a CDH
survivor. Fifteen CDH patients and parents crowded around
a table in his conference room and took turns narrating their
health care struggles. The senator (who is now the attorney
general) then singled me out as the only scientist in the room
and asked about the latest discoveries in CDH research. We
chatted for a few minutes about the complicated genetics
underlying CDH, and I saw how his personal connection with
CDH sparked a sincere interest in the underlying science.
Then, last month, emboldened by this first visit and moti-
vated by recent political events, I decided to speak with my
senators and representative when I was in Washington, D.C.,
for a science meeting. My most memorable visit was with
Representative Chris Stewart (R–UT). Again, a key to the
success of this conversation was finding common interests.
What resonated with him was hearing about the economics
of running a lab that relies on funding from the National
Institutes of Health (NIH). He was clearly interested in how
many people I employ and the ef-
fects of a flatlined NIH budget on
the lab’s personnel and productivity,
and I realized that few nonscientists
understand the practical realities of
conducting scientific research.
Did my visits to Congress make
any difference? I know that Sessions’s office made yearly inquiries
into NIH funding for birth defects
when he was a senator and that Representative Stewart now knows that
a developmental biology lab is like a
small business, but I’m not sure how
much further the impact extends. A
My advice is to find some way to tell your own science
story that will resonate with your listeners. You could take a
few hours during your next trip to Washington, D.C., to visit
your senators and representatives. Attend town meetings
and speak up. Volunteer in classrooms at your local schools.
Participate in the March for Science. Step out of the lab, step
in from the field, and engage. ■
Gabrielle Kardon is an associate professor and a National
Science Foundation–sponsored STEM Ambassador
( stemap.org) at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Send your career story to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.
“A key to the success of
this conversation was
finding common interests.”
Step out of the lab and engage
Last month I found myself sitting on a leather couch, my black dress smoothed over my knees, in a hushed wood-paneled room in Washington, D.C. The silence was broken by a group of lob- byists for the aerospace industry bantering about labor costs. I panicked for a moment. “Why am I here waiting in the anteroom of this senator’s office?” I asked myself. I had a mission— advocating for science funding—but I felt out of my element. Normally, I would be sitting in
jeans and a T-shirt peering down a microscope at sections of muscle tissue. But I reminded myself
that scientists have an important role to play in public policy.
By Gabrielle Kardon
sciencemag.org SCIENCE 1234 17 MARCH 2017 • VOL 355 ISSUE 6330