Recently I attended the Eagleton Science and Politics Workshop on Public Decision Making in Health, Education, and the Environment, hosted by the Eagleton Institute of Politics. This event was the second Science and Politics workshop hosted by the Eagleton Institute in collaboration with the Rutgers iJOBS program (interdisciplinary Opportunities for Biomedical Scientists). The event brings together basic scientists and professionals in politics, policy and government to discuss opportunities for better communication between scientists and those involved in the political sphere.
At this workshop, we talked about the intersections of science and politics, which are necessary because of an interplay of expertise necessary for policy concerning areas of science or health such as public health, climate change, and sustainability. There was a panel discussion with three professionals from different areas where science and policy intersect: Thomas J. Carew, Ph.D., Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science at NYU; Heather Howard, J.D., Director of the State Health Reform Assistance Network; and Upendra Chivukula, Commissioner of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Each brought their unique perspective and experience to the discussion of how to integrate more scientists into the policy world. Here are some lessons that I took away from the workshop:
- A need for a cultural and structural change in the training of graduate students and postdocs so that they have expertise and experiences outside of academia.
Dr. Carew gave the example of a student who got a very prestigious award from the Society for Neuroscientists for his service in bringing science to the public, and when asked what his PI (principal investigator) thought of this work, the student replied that he hadn’t dared to mention any of it to the PI because it didn’t relate to bench research.
- A need for people who are able to translate science for policymakers accurately and concisely
Ms. Howard gave the example of several senators who have a policy where they don’t read anything that is more than a page.
- The tricky task of balancing priorities between the smaller (but potentially volatile) issues and the bigger picture.
Ms. Howard used the example of Kinder College to illustrate this. This pre-school happened to be built on the site of a former thermometer factory, so there were high levels of liquid mercury around. Because of this, groups were pushing for there to be a policy in place that prohibited pre-schools from being within 1000ft of a gas station or dry cleaner. In New Jersey, given its population density, such a thing would be virtually impossible, so they had to figure out a way to create a safe environment for children in pre-school that was feasible in the state.
- Opportunities in big data
Mr. Chivukula mentioned a myriad of opportunities for people with experience in handling large volumes of data in government. Like in pretty much every other sector, data analysts are needed in the political sphere.
- Science and policy challenges coming to a head in the near future.
Mr. Chivukula also mentioned several hot-topic areas of science and technology that have political and governmental implications. These areas may be a good entry point for scientists interested in careers in politics and government. They are: net neutrality, global warming, and climate change.
What are some other ways that science and politics might intersect? Do you think that there is a need for more scientists in politics and government?