Bringing science policy into the classroom

Scientists need to look beyond their laboratories to include not just microscopes and beakers but lawmakers on Capitol Hill, said a panel of professors and policy experts on 14 February at the AAAS meeting in Chicago.

Across the country, institutions of higher learning are implementing science policy courses for undergraduate and graduate students. Despite this trend, more programs of study are needed. Together, the panelists encouraged science students, and their institutions, to supplement biological, chemical, or physical science preparation with exploration into the process of policymaking, drafting legislation, and lobbying for a cause.

Although many colleges and universities have courses that reference science-related legislation, few research universities offer courses on science policy and advocacy. Panelist Alicia Jackson, a staff member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, suggested that because scientists are often unfamiliar with the legislative process, they discourage their students from straying from the pure sciences.

Similarly, most political science departments lack courses tailored to explaining science to future policymakers. As a result, most legislators have minimal science training beyond the high school level, said Tobin Smith, a vice president at the Association of American Universities.

Both science and policymaking involve problem identification, investigation, and evaluation, explained Genene Fisher, a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society and adjunct professor at North Carolina State University. As a result, she suggested, skills used in the two disciplines are often transferable, but only with the proper training. Without more science policy courses at the collegiate level, communication between the two disciplines is hindered as students become professionals, Fisher said.

"If you can't explain it to me in a way that I can understand it," said Tobin Smith, the only panelist without a science background, "then you can't explain it to people on The Hill."

To combat some of these challenges, the panelists discussed several initiatives currently in place on campuses across the country. At the University of Michigan, Professor Homer Neal implemented a course that gives students an overview of what science policy entails, as well as historic and current events that have shaped the science world. Similarly, as a graduate student at MIT, Alicia Jackson developed a "boot camp" class for her fellow graduate students that condensed the basics of science policy into an intensive one-week program.

Professor Francis Slakey's position at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has allowed him to use Congress "as a laboratory." In his seminar-style course, students identify potential science policy issues, draft legislation, and lobby members of Congress to support their propositions. Using this method, Slakey and his students have had three projects accepted as bills and signed into law.

While the structure and format of such courses can vary, depending on the interests of the faculty member and the resources of the institution, their intentions are the same: to produce students who have the ability to convey their ideas in effective and persuasive manners. These courses teach students to use the skills they have already developed to evaluate policy issues and petition for action in line with the needs of their particular fields of interest.

By providing students with the tools to traverse the distance between the research laboratory and Capitol Hill, science policy courses can help improve the relationships between scientists and government officials, panelists agreed.

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Danielle C. Bartolo is an undergraduate at Cornell University pursuing a dual degree in biology and society and communication. She has served as a science writer for Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology and as a research intern for several other organizations. Danielle also has conducted communication research on public engagement with science and the effectiveness of health-related public service announcements. Reach her at dcb42@cornell.edu