EEB graduate student, Holly Andrews, ventured to Capitol Hill for the annual conference of the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers (AERC) October 8, 2014. There, she began her own advocacy as a representative of the University of Michigan and the U-M Biological Station, an AERC member,  and to continue the dialogue between active scientists and policymakers.

Andrew’s master's advisor, Professor Mark Hunter, knew that she was interested in getting involved in education and policy, and forwarded her an email from Professor Knute Nadelhoffer, director of the U-M Biological Station. Nadelhoffer thought she would be a good representative for the university and for U-M's Biological Station, where she researched last summer. UMBS provided funding for Andrew’s trip.  

Nadelhoffer was AERC president in 2004-5 and has attended or sent a delegate, often a graduate student, from the Biological Station to the organization’s annual October meeting since that time. “It’s an empowering meeting for young scientists and students to attend,” Nadelhoffer said. “They meet with researchers from other field stations and centers conducting ecosystem-scale science, and, importantly, they also meet with Congressional staffers to discuss their personal research experiences and the importance of federal support for the research on ecosystems. Importantly, they receive expert training and guidance prior to what is normally their first ‘official’ Congressional visit.”

“During my first day in Washington, D.C., I learned the three most important lessons of politics during one of our workshops:  1.) Come into any meeting with business cards and a practiced plan for discussion. 2.) Repeat yourself. And 3.) Repeat yourself,” Andrews said. “Congresspeople have a lot of issues to juggle, and you want to make sure they come out of your meeting with a clear idea of what you want and what they need to consider. For this conference, we wanted to be a unified front on raising awareness of the importance of continued (and increased) federal funding for biological research in the face of budget restructuring, particularly in the areas of ecology and ecosystems studies. 

“My second day in D.C. began with a Congressional briefing involving talks from faculty at universities across the country, followed by lunch with the speakers for those interested. The briefing itself was targeted towards Congressional staffers and included the topics of urban heat islands, coastal marsh restoration, and agricultural management. I was particularly interested in the kinds of questions the staffers asked the speakers; theirs were very different from what would be asked in an academic setting, mostly focused on application and less on the importance of the research itself. Take-away message:  policymakers need fast facts and many of them so that they can have effective evidence in Congressional meetings with those who may not have a scientific background.

“After lunch came the nerves:  the second half of October 9 was talking to actual Congresspeople! Well, not exactly. Appointments were made to talk to Congressional staffers who reported to their respective representatives. And my appointment had fallen through with Michigan representatives because of correspondence issues with the representatives' offices.  As a result, I teamed up with one of the briefing's faculty speakers, Dr. Darrel Jenerette from the University of California, Riverside, to talk to a staffer for Mark Takano (D), representative of the 41st District of California in the U.S. House of Representatives. Our conversation was a very positive one. Rep. Takano's stance was and is very much in favor of science, particularly science education. As a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, he agreed that funding for scientific research should be a priority for future knowledge and industry. I was very pleased to learn that science policy is not forgotten and that my views are represented at the federal level (although likely not enough).

“My trip to Capitol Hill was truly a new experience for me. I had never planned to be involved with policymakers at all in my life, but attending AERC's conference allowed me to witness how important it is for individuals to unite together to advocate for ecology and science. I was able to meet others who shared my views on the importance of research and to educate politicians about why these opinions matter. In fact, I felt so inspired by this trip that I have applied to attend a similar Congressional visit hosted by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) in May 2015.

“Additionally, after our joint meeting in Congress, Dr. Jenerette and I talked about our research interests, and long story short, I have applied to his lab at a Ph.D. student at UCR in the fall.  So, overall, a pretty productive two days!

“There are many ways to get the word out about the importance of federal funding for research and the importance of ecology, evolution, and other scientific research.  In-person discussions with your Congressional representatives are a great way to show your commitment to science and research, as I learned.  However, any communication at all to policymakers and political groups is a step toward being involved in continuing scientific progress. I believe that if we ecologists don't advocate for ecology, if we scientists don't advocate for science, no one else will.”

Andrews graduates from the University of Michigan Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology this year. Her thesis, entitled "Precipitation and climate change: effects of altered rainfall on interactions within a grassland ecosystem," explores the effects of changes in precipitation mean and variation on milkweed (Asclepias spp.) growth, defense, and subsequent effects on monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) performance.  She plans to continue her work on climate change, ecohydrology, and plant ecology in future studies. She also plans to attend the AERC meeting again in 2015.