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  • Writer's pictureAlaina M. Jaster

So, you want to be an advocate?

An open letter to my fellow researchers

By Alaina M. Jaster

The Reform Conference sat at an almost perfect intersection of research, community organizing and policy, with sessions for almost any interest. For a researcher like myself, I was excited for the sessions with the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and I was thrilled to hear about evidence-based policy happening as a result of on the ground mobilization and community-driven research. But as an advocate, I found myself disappointed when I thought about how there could be so many more of us researchers at this conference.

Something that really stayed with me after the session with Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, was the attempts to keep science and research from becoming politicized. For so long the ivory tower of academia has taught folks to focus on the science, to do the experiments and to keep away from engaging in politics and policy change. “The evidence will speak for itself,” is something I’m sure every researcher has heard. Even in one of Dr. Volkow's remarks, she discussed how it’s the institutions job to do the research and to inform the public about what drugs do in the brain and that itself should inform decisions. Unfortunately, policy is messy, often incremental, and highly depends on the local legislation and their knowledge on the issues.

While science should definitely remain objective and focused, there are some pitfalls to the non-politicized approach. We often we find that our research is late to the party, struggling to keep up with the trends and changes. For example, for many years funding has been focused on the opioid crisis and how to fix it. We know so much about IV self-administration, but now things are shifting and people who are using these drugs are finding alternative ways to use as a form of harm reduction. The use of inhalation as a route of administration was discussed and the Director herself admitted that the amount of knowledge we have on inhalation of certain compounds and how to make it safer is extremely limited compared to what we know about say – injecting heroin.

In addition to the lagging in funding and publishing that drive the research, there is a blatant lack of community-driven research. This refers to collaborative research that allows for people with lived experience to have a seat at the table. If the population we are trying to serve isn’t involved in the process of developing research questions, designing methods and providing insight, then are we really serving them? Or are we serving us? Is the research we are doing actually to benefit who we say it will or is it to benefit from the community and climb the ivory tower?

Whether we like it or not, research is politicized. The entire war on drugs has politicized research and funded research that focuses directly on the negative impacts of psychoactive substances while ignoring the positives. The current drug laws we have are disproportionately targeting black and brown folks, indigenous folks, as well as poor people of all races and ethnicities. The lack of research on stimulant use and cardiovascular issues following the crack epidemic (which don’t even get me started) has caused several people to lose their lives, majority of them being older black men. If you need a more recent example of the politicization of research and medicine, I’d like to remind everyone about the politics involved in the COVID vaccine.

Whether we as researchers like it or not, the work is being taken and twisted, so why not take back the narrative? Do we not have a moral responsibility to inform the public on what we’re actually doing instead of letting them be persuaded by runaway sensationalist media titles that influence the people who make the laws?

The excuse I frequently hear by colleagues about their lack of advocacy is that they don’t want their reputation tarnished. They want to remain objective, even-headed, uninvolved… but there is no reason we cannot be good scientists while also wanting our work to better inform the policy that is going to shape our future. So, if you want to an advocate, here are some things you can do:

Be an educator – That’s part of the job description anyways!

Academic experts have a role to play in the policy process due to our unique insights and experiences from the work we do. Specifically, if you research anything surrounding drugs or people who use drugs you can humanize drug use.

  • Evidence-based research presented to lawmakers from the academic experts make it more credible and less biased than if a special-interest organization was to present it. Your objectivity can remain intact and even be praised.

  • The fancy letters give more leverage. Credentials lend more access to people and more influence on policy. You can use your position to speak for people who have no power.

  • Use your knowledge and expertise to write letters to editors in news media, in a variety of journals or send research to news media with talking points to help them understand the current landscape.

  • Consider adding policy sections to your papers when submitting for publication or infusing some implications for things beyond just the research community. Talk about how the research can influence public health and provide evidence to change policy.

  • Make sure that any communication outside of an academic setting is exact and succinct, with focus on the findings and implications for the drug policy without the scientific jargon.

Be an accomplice - Outreach looks good on a CV, right? Well, it can also be good for advocacy.

Starting a partnership with a community organization or an advocacy group is a great start to not only learning more about what needs to be done but you can also help educate people about ongoing research and see how your work can help them.

  • Start by volunteering and learning more about the organization, build relationships and trust within the community.

  • Working with groups outside the university can also help foster trust within the community that may have been harmed through the medical system.

  • Being an ally/accomplice can also lead to some awesome collaborative community-driven research or inspire someone within the community to want to be a scientist! How cool is that? Drug Policy Alliance has some awesome information on community-driven research that you can access HERE

  • You can also be an ally or accomplice by using your expertise to call out bad research via letters to journals and petitions. If you think something overreaching, falsified or otherwise problematic and unrepresentative of the data, use your voice!

  • This could also include posting open comments regarding policy change on public forums. For example, when the DEA called for public comment on scheduling of psychedelics the research community responded and WON!

Be a resource - Don’t have time to do outreach? Go behind the scenes!

  • Most of the time policy makers just don’t know what they don’t know, and you can help them fix that by reaching out about your ongoing work and how it can help the public.

  • Policymakers, especially in the local legislation, are likely to be responsive because they don’t hear from academic experts often. This can give you leverage and help start a relationship.

  • Show up to events like town halls or fundraising events that the elected officials are hosting, this will allow you to connect with them and learn more about the issues that they care about. It’s important to find a common ground and connect policy work with the issues they are backing and establish a relationship.

  • Once a relationship is established, let them know they can contact you to ask any questions about your topics of expertise. You never know when a bill might land on their desk that you might be able to advise them on and make a difference.

  • Similar to policymakers, journalists also tend to be under informed on science and will typically welcome information. Send recently published papers that they might be able to use to further evidence-based policy or news, send them brief summaries or white papers about your research as it develops to help inform them.

Be an organizer – For those who like to be more involved

Most academics are part of professional organization or associations and these typically have committees that make decisions.

  • Joining a committee or organizing one within your professional organization can help build relationships with others who are interested in advocacy but may be nervous to discuss it. This can help start conversations about how research influences policy and what you can do within the organization to influence it for the better.

  • You can also join organizations like DPA or Students for Sensible Drug Policy to get more involved in the advocacy around drug policy. Don't have an org at your university? START ONE!

  • Serving on commissions is another good way to get people talking about changes in drug policy and encourage evidence-based policy change. Having an expert who is passionate about advocacy can help add drug policy and research topics to the agenda. This can also encourage folks on the board to consider factors like race, gender and class into analyses.

  • Organize/participate in planning relevant events and multidisciplinary panels that are open to the public. A lot of the professional associations are networks of elite folks within academia and the public can’t learn and attend these events if they are behind a paywall. Consider planning something in collaboration with an advocacy group or community organization to discuss research and evidence-based policy.

Be available – it’s the easiest thing to do

No one has the capacity to do all of these things or commit all of their time outside of their job to extra stuff, BUT there are some things you can do periodically or when you find yourself with some free time.

  • Let lawmakers, community organizers and local news know you can be used as a resource if they have any questions

  • Respond to news media requests when you can, this allows you to frame the research the way its intended and challenge sensationalism

  • Participate in local events that are relevant to your work

  • Public education events through libraries or local orgs are a great way to start

It’s all about building relationships.

If there is one thing academics are good at, it’s networking. So, use those skills to build relationships that can positively impact the community you live in and encourage others to try out advocacy.

The climate around advocacy engagement is shifting. Many young investigators are getting more involved in their community and in organizations outside of academia. Don’t get left behind, join the movement.

I’d like to thank the Drug Policy Alliance for hosting the Advocacy for Academics training session at the Reform Conference. All the information in this document is a reflection of the session and their advice on how to bridge the divide between research and policy. For more information or to host them for a training for your institution please check out the DPA Department of Research and Academic Engagement.

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