Giving scientific testimony: Are you ready?

A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2011. (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution photo)

By Amy Dunkle | Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR

The advice might sound counterintuitive, if not painful — take your life’s work of research and boil it down to an elevator speech, and begin with your conclusion rather than an explanation of your experiments and methods.

But, when it comes to testifying as a scientific expert before a congressional panel, Amy Carroll, Ph.D., director of research development at Brown University, knows of what she speaks.

Carroll previously worked for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as an advisor on energy, environment, and science issues. She also served as staff director of the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards.

“You want them to know you are worth listening to and why you are there,” Carroll said, explaining why researchers must turn a scientific paper on its head when providing expert testimony. “It’s a whole other world, a whole other set of rules.”

Carroll outlined the finer points of testifying before federal legislative bodies during a Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting workshop Thursday, Oct. 15. Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR supported the lunchtime SciComm Exchange held at the University of Rhode Island’s Carothers Library.

Carroll provided a backdrop of the congressional hearing process, starting with why hearings occurred, to help workshop attendees gain a better sense of how the wheels of democracy turned and why it was important to tailor testimony to fit proceedings.

There are almost 45 House and Senate committees divided up by topical areas and oversight of federal agencies, she said, and, typically, they hold hearings for one of four reasons:

  • SciComm ExchangeThere is a hot topic in the news and politicians want to demonstrate to constituents they are aware of it and taking action.
  • Lawmakers might want to build a case for legislation and provide scientific background to bolster their position.
  • A constituent flags an issue; perhaps calling attention to a specific regulation that is hurting his or her business.
  • Or, a hearing can be more procedural in nature such as oversight of executive branch agencies, support for a funding initiative request, or a confirmation hearing.

Planning hearings often takes place last minute, with only two to three weeks notice. To line up experts, Carroll said congressional staffs would search Google and ask scientific societies for individuals who are well versed on a topic and articulate in their delivery. Once a name surfaces as an expert, staffers might go to a university website to find videos of the scientist speaking.

“They are really looking for someone who can explain this in English, to people who are relatively smart, but not an expert in your area,” Carroll said. “They might call and say, ‘we’re thinking of having a hearing sometime soon about this topic and you were recommended.’ They’ll talk with you on the phone for a half an hour to get a feeling if you can speak about a particular issue.”

Then, if they like what they hear, Carroll said, “They’ll probably end by asking you if you’re available next Tuesday at 10 a.m.”

Keep in mind the staff members rule the congressional world, Carroll added. The job they hold is highly competitive and they are the proverbial cream of the crop. They are driven and committed to their job, and often youthful, she said: “Even if they look like they’re young, they are still very important. Treat them with the same respect you would a congressman or senator.”

Committee chairmen always come from the majority party and invite the most witnesses to a hearing. The ranking member from the minority party may invite one or two witnesses. Carroll cautioned that in giving testimony there was fine line between where science ends and policy begins, and experts need to clarify that they are referencing scientific findings.

She encouraged scientists to let their institution’s government and media relations offices know if they are invited to testify; these offices can be helpful in preparing experts to talk. They can research who is on the committee, brainstorm on potential questions and review written testimony, typically about five to 10 pages long and due two to five days prior to a hearing.

And don’t, she added, err on the side of length. Congressional staffers won’t read the written testimony until a few days before the hearing and members rarely read the documents. Instead, staff will give a synopsis of the information to help members devise questions.

“You’ll also get five to 10 minutes to summarize your testimony in an oral statement,” Carroll said. “I would highly recommend making your oral testimony different from your written. Make it more conversational and engaging to get the members’ attention.”

Other critical tips from Carroll:

  • If you are testifying at 9 or 10 am, head to D.C. the night before and not on the 6 a.m. shuttle to avoid any dooming travel delays.
  • Wear business dress — a suit, or at least khakis, blazer and tie, for men, and dress and structured jacket for women.
  • Wear comfortable shoes as the metro is the easiest way to get around and the distance between the House and Senate is about three quarters of a mile.
  • Expect to not start on time. Each person on the committee makes an opening statement, about five minutes long. So, testimony often begins only to be halted when a member shows up and gets to make a statement.
  • With these interruptions, your testimony will start and stop. Practice stopping and then resuming 10 minutes later.
  • While testifying, don’t be rattled by committee members looking at phones, fielding emergency calls or whispering with staff members about what questions to ask.
  • You will have little time to answer questions. A committee member will make a speech and give you about 30 seconds to respond, so prepare a succinct comment. “I don’t know” or “I can go more in depth in follow-up and provide a written response” are acceptable replies.
  • There will be a clock in front of you keeping tabs on how much time is available. Make sure to leave enough time for members to ask questions.
  • With members running in and out of hearings, expect to have questions repeated. If someone asks the same thing, answer it — don’t point out that you just answered that question.
  • Remember to clarify whether speaking science or policy. If you want to venture to the policy side, be clear and say you are offering your opinion.
  • You also might be asked questions for the written record. If so, you will have about two weeks to submit your information.
  • Increasingly, people are being sworn in for hearings, making the proceedings more official. You may be asked to provide information on grants you have from the federal government to indicate whether a conflict of interest exists with what you are providing testimony on.
  • Be concise, respectful and provide concrete examples. For example, if you don’t do anything about carbon dioxide emissions, sea level will rise and impact a vital (pick one) economic resource.
  • Work with your government relations office in advance so you know if you are walking into a contentious situation.
  • Only use a visual aide if it’s a picture or an easily read graph, and only use if absolutely necessary. Steer clear of slide presentations with bullet points.
  • If you are attending a meeting with a legislator and/or staff, you might bring a one-page handout heavy on the pictures and graphs, lighter on text.


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