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Beyond the Booth

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Minnesota_State_Capitol.jpgBY JOEY REID

If you are anything like me you may have a dim view of politics. I learned that voting was the core of democracy in my junior high and high school civics classes. I think I was lied to. Voting rarely results in any significant interaction with candidates, and even less opportunity for directly influencing public policies. Even if you do interact with a candidate on the campaign trail, well, we've all seen how campaign promises turn out.

Beyond the relatively limited influence of your vote, democracy seems to be off limits to the common people, while lobbyists and giant corporations guide the policy that politicians sign into law. As scientists, we rarely have the money to lobby our facts to improve public policy. So how is our science ever going to be relevant if we have no voice in policy making? After all, most of us aren't interested in settling for a few hundred citations in an academic journal (if we're lucky). We got into this because we wanted to make a difference in the world, to improve the lives of thousands, millions or even billions of people.

It turns out I was lied to, or at least misled. While voting is an important component of democracy, it's really only a small piece. At the Minnesota State Capitol last week I learned that there are a variety of underutilized ways to have a voice in policymaking. As part of a group of highly motivated graduate students and postdocs in the Institute on the Environment's Boreas Leadership Program, I met with state representatives Kate Knuth (DFL-50B) and Denny McNamara (R-57B). The key to democracy is to be an active participant. That means building a relationship with your representatives, communicating with them on issues that are important to you, and organizing others to support your position. While that sounds like a lot of work, both representatives emphasized that just a few personal boreas@capitol.jpgemails or phone calls from constituents can guide their policy positions. If I feel like my representatives haven't done a good job of representing my needs and values, it could just be that I haven't told them what my needs are.

Your legislators are a great place to start if you want to influence policy, but you are still a single voice in a sea. Luckily, there are many levels of government, many nongovernment organizations and many ways to make a real difference. Get creative. Smaller, local organizations like environmental advisory committees or local watershed districts are often easier to participate in, and work to aggregate the voices of many people to more effectively affect public policy.

I honestly feel empowered after this workshop. And it's not just me: I know I can empower others with this same information. To help empower you, I've made this handy guide to contributing to policy making.

An Idiot's Guide to Contributing to Policy Making
(organized from least to most effort)

    1.    Vote. You can vote for people whose policy positions align well with your own, and let them make all the decisions for you. Also, if you vote in primaries, there's a decent chance your representative will get in touch with you, giving you a more direct voice.

    2.    Call or email your representative. This is really pretty easy. It gets much easier when you use a form provided by some sort of campaign, but form letters don't have as much weight with your legislator. It takes slightly more work, but if you use your own words and describe why you think it's an important issue, you are more likely to influence your representative.

    3.    Organize. Organizing can take a lot of different forms, but the key is that you are increasing the impact of your message by increasing the number of people behind it. You can organize a letter-writing campaign (but see the caveats above), or you can organize a fundraiser for your representative. Nothing talks like money, even if you're just the funnel for it.

    4.    Build a professional relationship with your representative. All representatives have a regular meeting time, and all should be able to schedule a meeting with you if you can't make their standard open houses. As they get to know you, they'll listen more closely, and may even call on you for your particular expertise.

    5.    Testify. As a scientist, you're an expert in something. If it's relevant, you can testify to a legislative committee. Good science is always needed, you can make sure it's available by testifying.

    6.    Serve on a local advisory committee. These committees meet infrequently and can help shape local policies.

    7.    Run for office. Do you like walking door to door, talking to people about what they love and what their concerns are? We need scientists in elected office, so if this fits into the demands of your career, go for it! Unless you're wealthy and want to be less effective, you're probably best off running for a more local office. To paraphrase Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, local government must work, otherwise sewage flows over pot-holed roads; national government rarely has such direct consequences, and therefore can afford the luxury of being ineffective.

Joey Reid is a teaching assistant with IonE's Boreas Leadership Program. Boreas photo by Jillian Stein.

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  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.