Research! America Project Promotes Grassroots Advocacy For Science

There is a challenge that faces the entire scientific community. From the farmland of Northern Wisconsin to the business district of San Francisco, a blanket covering the untapped potential for medical research advocacy needs to be removed. The opportunity to strengthen the call for doubling the United States' commitment to medical research looms larger than ever. It is time for the scientific community to elevate its advocacy, with a unified voice, to a volume not yet heard by local, state, an

Jul 21, 1997
Ray Merenstein

There is a challenge that faces the entire scientific community. From the farmland of Northern Wisconsin to the business district of San Francisco, a blanket covering the untapped potential for medical research advocacy needs to be removed. The opportunity to strengthen the call for doubling the United States' commitment to medical research looms larger than ever. It is time for the scientific community to elevate its advocacy, with a unified voice, to a volume not yet heard by local, state, and national media and elected officials.

Research!America recently launched the 435 Project, a name chosen as a reminder that citizens in every congressional district have a voice. At the project's focal point is a commitment to helping stakeholders in medical research work together to take advocacy to a much higher level. The approach is to diagnose the current stage of activity in a community and develop site-specific resources and strategies to elevate it.

Cochaired by Louis Sullivan, president of Morehouse College, and M.R.C. Greenwood, chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, the 435 Project leadership council is composed of leaders from academia, industry, voluntary health agencies, professional societies, and philanthropies. The council is starting the program in six pilot districts: Alaska; Columbus, Ohio; Houston; New Orleans; northern Wisconsin; and San Francisco.

In rural communities like those in Alaska or northern Wisconsin, advocacy begins with reminding stakeholders that although an academic medical center, pharmaceutical company, or biotech firm may not be nearby, medical research nonetheless plays a vital role in citizen health. here, innovative programs such as the advocacy requirement for first-year residents at Columbus Children's Hospital prepares future generations of health professionals for advocacy. During the one- week "advocacy rotation," residents identify a cause, such as medical research or health coverage for uninsured children. The rotation culminates when each resident writes a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, drafts a letter to a public official, or role-plays a conversation with a legislator.

In every region, a baseline understanding of current efforts by scientists and others helps local steering committees, in partnership with Research!America, to identify the route new strategies should take. One size does not fit all in community-based advocacy. A speech by an elected official or renowned local scientist to the Commonwealth Club, the prominent San Francisco-based speaker's forum, might be a strategy for outreach in that district. Meanwhile, a booth at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Wellness Institute, the annual summer public health and nutrition conference attended by thousands from the Midwestern states, is more likely to be the approach used in that region.

Research!America helps its partners in advocacy build effective grass-roots efforts with a tool box that includes graphs from public opinion polls, lists of advocacy tips, sample letters to Congress, reprints of relevant articles, and novelty items such as bumper stickers and posters. Research!America also is creating a focus-group-tested brochure for use nationwide, while a speaker's kit with slides, talking points, overheads, and handouts adds one more tool to the resource portfolio.

"Strategies for community-building must be grounded in giving people not only the skills, but the tools necessary to work together," reads a January 1997 report from the Dayton, Ohio-based Kettering Foundation entitled Strategies for Civil Investing. "If organizations help people create processes for working together, this will increase the public's sense of ownership of the community's challenges and their confidence that they can tackle challenges that arise."

Effective research advocacy among citizens requires that scientists get involved. Surveys and focus groups confirm that the public wants to hear about research from the scientific community. Readers of The Scientist, whether located in a 435 Project pilot site or not, can make a difference by reaching out to media, civic groups, legislators, patients, students, colleagues, and neighbors.

In Research!America's 1994 outreach campaign in metropolitan New York, Nobel laureate Rosalyn Yalow returned to her elementary school in the Bronx to speak about science. USA Today, hearing of this, wanted to know when the next Nobel laureate was going to visit his or her elementary school. There was no answer. Scientific advocacy fell short. Today, sustainability of strategies is a primary objective of the 435 Project.

One of the best ways to sustain outreach is by creating a strong base of advocates from the start. The 435 Project began with a workshop (adapted from the American Chemical Society) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. Scientists and voluntary health agency representatives learned new skills and honed old ones. Citizen ownership over local advocacy (that is, people feeling a part of the process and believing they make an impact) was a direct outcome. Workshop attendees from each pilot site have since implemented outreach strategies: giving presentations to hospital and corporate trustees, visiting congressional offices, and posting advocacy tips and talking points on Web sites. At the participants' request, the workshop is now slated to be held in some pilot states.

Without a strong, constant voice from the scientific community and the citizens it empowers, medical research will drown under other issues. The 435 Project is primed to be the premier community catalyst for promoting medical research. The challenges that face pharmaceutical and biotech companies in San Francisco and Houston; that confront offices of public health in Wisconsin and Alaska; and that are presented to academic institutions, hospitals, and volunteer agencies in New Orleans and Columbus, Ohio, exist here too.

Research!America is committed to bringing what it learns from the pilot phase to every community in the U.S. over the next few years. We're proud to be your partner in advocacy.

Ray Merenstein is vice president, programs and 435 Project director at Research!America in Alexandria, Va. E-mail: RayMstein@aol.com.