A Scientist's Guide to Testifying before Congress

If you're a leader or prominent subject matter expert in your field, you could be called upon to testify before US Congress. What does that mean?
01 March 2020
By Christina C. C. Willis

You've seen it in the movies or on the news: leaders or subject matter experts testifying at a hearing before US Congress. The purpose of these hearings can be to inform an investigation, review proposed legislation, or vet a nominee before they are passed to the floor for full consideration. There are dozens of congressional committees that regularly hold these hearings; they are an important aspect of Congress and committee work, and scientists and engineers are often asked to testify.

Juan Torres, the Associate Laboratory Director for Energy Systems Integration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, is an electrical engineer by training and has testified before Congress twice. In October 2018, he testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on the subject of blackstart, which refers to restarting the power grid after a system-wide blackout. Then, in July 2019, he testified on the subject of power grid modernization and security for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Witnesses, such as Torres, are asked to submit written testimony before the hearing, and then to deliver five minutes of oral testimony and respond to questions during the hearing. In preparing his testimony, Torres made a point to consider its potential impact on his home office, NREL, its parent office-the Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy-and other interested sponsor offices.

"I was sure to get my written testimony reviewed in advance, both internal and external to NREL, to make sure they were aware of what I was going to say and if they had any concerns or suggestions on rewording," he says. He also practiced his oral testimony out loud, timing it to ensure that it fit within the firm five-minute window allowed for opening statements.

Torres says that testifying requires you to "communicate on a level where you know you're speaking to an intelligent audience; however, they may not have a technical background or depth of knowledge in the area," and that means adapting the message for the audience. He recommends having somebody outside your area of technical expertise read your testimony in advance to ensure that a nonexpert can understand it, and to ask questions. "It's one thing to be able to plan your statement in writing... but when somebody asks you a question on the fly about artificial intelligence or quantum computing, you have to be able to respond in a way that the audience will grasp what you're saying."

As a witness, Torres also emphasized the importance of context when testifying. This means paying attention to both the politics of the moment and the politics of the committee members themselves. "Your topic may not be controversial, but there might be something else controversial going on," says Torres. In his case, Torres testified not long after the contentious nomination hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and many of the Senators he was testifying before had also served in those hearings.

And while Torres's testimony on blackstart was noncontroversial, he cautioned that "not everybody who may be on the committee will be a big fan of the technology that you're working on, so it's good to do a little bit of homework in advance to understand where they are coming from."

For example, two of the Senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee had very different interests when it came to energy generation. One was from a state with a strong incentive to increase renewable energy, and another came from a state whose economy depends on the coal industry. "We as technical experts have to be agnostic to the politics," says Torres, emphasizing the importance of delivering scientific facts in a neutral fashion under such circumstances.

Being up to date on current events related to the hearing topic is also valuable context. There was an attack on the power grid the month before Torres testified on grid security, and he was asked a question about the incident during the hearing.

Knowing who else is testifying can also inform oral testimony. Coordinating with other witnesses can help to prevent repeating information and use hearing time more effectively. Regarding his grid security testimony, Torres says, "Once the written testimonies were submitted...there were a couple of us [witnesses] that connected, and we shared each other's testimony." This allowed them to support and complement each other during the hearing, and convey a more cohesive message.

If you are a leader or a prominent subject matter expert in your field, it is possible that you might one day be called upon to testify before Congress. Congressional staff could invite you to testify based on your publications or your position at a university or federal agency. Whether or not that day comes, the lessons of knowing your audience, understanding the context of a moment, practicing, and having others review your message before you deliver it, will make you a more effective communicator wherever you choose to speak.

Christina C. C. Willis is a laser scientist and writer living in Washington, DC, where she is currently serving on Capitol Hill as the 2019–2020 OSA and SPIE Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Fellow.

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