Scientific outreach: the next step

2018/10/05

This is the second part of a post on how to get started with scientific outreach. In particular, we’re going to focus on reporting on your publicly funded research to your representatives. Part 1 is located here.

The story so far

In Part 1, I tried to argue that recipients of federally-funded research grants should spend a half day a year presenting this work to their federal representatives. In this post, I’m going go over some practical issues involved in putting such an event together.

Planning

In this section, we’re going to talk about how to set up an event for connecting your research to your representative. The idea is to put together a short visit, perhaps an hour or hour and a half, for your representative (ideally), or more likely one of their staff. Time is valuable, for everyone involved, and so you don’t need to orchestrate an elaborate or long visit–an hour or hour and a half should be fine.

What research should I highlight?

If you’re reaching out to your federal representative (in the House or Senate), then you’re going to want to highlight work that was funded by the Federal government (NSF, DOE, DARPA, etc). While it is understandable to be most excited about your most recent and in-progress work, you’re going to probably want to focus on work that is further down the road, more mature, and more complete. In fact, it is completely fine to highlight projects that have officially ended (perhaps the grant ended in the year or two previously).

What works really well are (1) posters and (2) demos. Posters are great because the students involved can attend those posters and speak to the work, why it is important, and what the impact is (or could be). Hands-on demos are a great way to connect the work to the visitors. In all cases, be concise and brief. Under no circumstances should you present a talk similar to one you might present at a research conference!

Recently we invited the two Congressional candidates for our district to tour our lab. The first candidate visited and saw three projects, including posters and a demo, and the entire visit was just about an hour. What we found that worked well was to highlight the (1) why of the project, the (2) potential impact of the project, and (3) the key insight or idea that you’re using to solve the problem. Think high level, focusing on not just the precise results (“our solution reduced the flow completion time of large flows by…”) and instead think of how to connect that to a smart, interested, but non-technical visitor. Perhaps “our system prioritizes the network traffic from important applications to let them finish faster than they would have otherwise, and since they run for less time, the user is happier, and the total cost and power is lower, letting users do more work with the same budget.”

Who should reach out to your representative?

If you’re a faculty/PI/advisor, it would certainly be appropriate to directly reach out. However, if you’re a graduate student, one concrete thing that you can do is to talk with your advisor/mentor and ask to coordinate this visit. Once you get their approval/permission, then either feel free to reach out yourself, or draft an email and ask your advisor to send it to them. Making things easier for your advisor increases the likelihood they will agree to participate.

Who should I contact?

Find your representatives by visiting https://whoismyrepresentative.com/. You’ll want to send them an email, asking to meet with a staff member who focuses on either scientific issues or educational outreach. You can search the web for a staff list, and sometimes find this person directly via that directory. Then email them extending them an invitation.

Sample email

Dear XYZ,

I am a constituent of Representative/Senator WYZ, and am a Professor
of Computer Science at University ABC.  In my lab, we're carrying out
research on (topic X).  The ultimate goal of this work is
to enable people to (something inspiring and high-level).

This research agenda is supported in part by a grant from the National Science
Foundation.  Given your role regarding science and technology policy, we would
like to invite you to visit our lab, and Congressperson X, if they are also
available.  It would be an opportunity to learn more about this research, to
meet our NSF-funded graduate and undergraduate students, and to see for
yourself the impact that this NSF funding has had in our district.

We realize your time is limited, and so could put together a short lab tour of
perhaps an hour, and are certainly flexible in terms of scheduling.  If you
want to combine this visit with any other on-campus meetings, let us know and
we will be happy to help coordinate with them.

We look forward to hearing from you, and hopefully hosting you soon.

Sincerely, XYZ

Local contacts

If the congressional staff member (or congress person themself) agree to visit, you’re going to want to at the very least let your local campus people know. At the very least, send a note to your department chair, your dean, and any federal outreach folks. It is possible that they will want to take over your visit. While it is fine to coordinate with them so that they can maximize the value of the visit, make sure you don’t get crowded out of your own event! At most (at least public) universities, faculty do not need to ask permission to carry out public outreach. But coordinating with your campus will ensure that they aren’t caught by surprise, and could make the visit even more useful for the visitors.

As an example, we recently hosted a congressional candidate to our lab, and after coordinating with campus, they were able to schedule a meeting on student loans and student finance issues that were relevant to the visitor. It was a way for that person to hit two birds with one stone in terms of their time.

Logistics

Getting ready

Once you’ve got a visit scheduled, start getting ready. Ideally you’re going to want to have a few posters that present your work, and have those posters attended by the students who have done that work. Meeting students is hugely important, since they’re the direct beneficiary of the funding, and they are the next generation of scientists. Demos can be good as well, as long as they’re not overly technical.

When you make the posters, make sure to put the logo(s) of the funding agencies in a prominent place on the poster. High-resolution NSF, DARPA, etc logos are available online. One thing that we did was to create a simple “one pager” handout that gave an overview of the research project, why it is important, and what impact it has on our congressional district.

The day of

Make sure to reserve a parking spot for your visitor. In fact, because a congressperson (or staffer) might arrive in separate cars, either ask them how many spots they will need, or proactively reserve two parking spot. The night before, email your contact a map of how to get to your building from the parking area (or have someone meet them at an easy-to-find place and walk over). Having name tags is a great way to facilitate a good visit.

It is likely that your visitor will want to take a picture with everyone for their own social media stream. Make sure to get some pictures of everyone, as well as candid pictures of the visit for your university social media (and/or your own record).

The day after

The next day, send a thank-you email to everyone who visited, including a few of the pictures. If any specific questions or discussions came up during the visit, make sure to include that material in your follow up response.

Feedback

As you can see, there are a few logistical details that need to be arranged to ensure a good visit, but it isn’t rocket science or really more than a couple of hours of work.

If you take the opportunity to do public outreach, please let me know! Would love to integrate any feedback or improvements to the above.