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?
Congressman Frank Pallone will be on campus this coming Monday (3/30) to host a round table discussion with students about student loans. They are looking for a few graduate students and there are very limited spaces still available. Let me know ASAP by email (Jennifer.Therkorn@rutgers.edu) if you’re interested in sharing your experiences with loans!
This coming March 17 -18, 2015 is the annual Congressional Visits Day (CVD). This annual event brings together STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals and students from across the country to Washington DC to advocate and raise visibility for STEM research funding among our nation’s top priorities. The mission is to support the maintenance of balanced federal investment in the STEM fields as a means to strengthen our nation’s prosperity, competitive edge and innovation policies. Through the newly formed Rutgers Chapter of the National Science Policy Group (NSPG), a contingent of grad students will be sponsored to represent Rutgers at the event and to meet with NJ’s Congressional Delegates.
One day will be spent networking among the participants who will include more than 33 professional scientific and engineering societies, higher education associations, and trade associations. On the second day, participants meet with Members of Congress, Congressional staff, Key Administration officials and other decision-makers on Capitol Hill.
There are still several spots available to any Rutgers grad students who would like to represent their STEM discipline at the event this year in Washington DC. If you are interested, email your contact information and a short description of your program/research to firstname.lastname@example.org. Students in the social sciences and arts/humanities whose research integrates STEM components are encouraged to reply. If you would like to be involved with Rutgers NSPG, check out their Facebook page or sign up for the Google group to get involved with their meetings and events.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has opened a three-month pilot discussion forum to spark discussion among U.S. graduate education stakeholders. They want to hear from us, graduate students, about how to improve STEM graduate education. The discussion forum will have questions posed throughout the pilot time to encourage an innovative national dialogue. Your comments and ideas can actually shape the new strategic directions for STEM graduate education in the U.S.! Check out the forum here: http://nsfgradforum.wordpress.com/.
When bemoaning the lack of government funding for scientific research, sooner or later one does start to wonder: how is it that more people aren’t worried about this? And shortly thereafter, one arrives at the conclusion that it is because not enough people place value in it. Those who do not conduct research as a part of their livelihood are not worried about the budget cuts to scientific research, unless something like an Ebola outbreak occurs. That’s extremely frightening. Historically speaking, when there is little interest in scientific research, there is also little innovation and progress.
Science is one of the pillars of humanity and scientific research has provided us with an invaluable way to experience our humanity. It has provided meaning to our surroundings, a context for our existence and even predictions for our future. Historically, leaders have recognized research as a powerful way to empower their people, sustain their growth and even preserve their culture. In a manner of speaking, scientific research has allowed for humanity’s almost “democratic” evolution: of the people, by the people, for the people.
Therefore, for science to continually thrive and flourish the people must act as its stewards. Continued support and encouragement of research efforts requires public interest and accessibility to scientific research. Scientific education at a young age is largely the responsibility of parents and the American education system, and after that it becomes the responsibility of an individual. Whether or not an individual chooses to remain scientifically aware is strongly influenced by their environment. As scientists, we can modulate this environment. Scientists are perfectly poised, if not perfectly trained, to convey their very personal passion for research and discovery to a broad audience. No one knows the work better, and no one else is as committed to it as they are. This is not only outreach, but also a part of their responsibility for advancing science. So this is an informal call to arms to all my fellow researchers – yes, we are all consumed by our work but we need to make sure we are not the only ones that care about it.
Luckily, several creative ways to generate public interest in science have started gaining popularity in recent years. One such way of increasing scientific awareness is the phenomenon of the “science festival”. These are a week to two week-long events, where there are workshops, seminars and demonstrations on a wide variety of topics of general relevance. Anyone with some scientific interest has an opportunity to see demonstrations, hear talks and participate in intelligent dialogue on scientific ideas. From the neurobiology of anger, to the chemistry of brewing beer to the science of weather, these are just a few examples of the ways in which such events bring scientific concepts to a large audience, and illuminate how incredibly pervasive and relevant science really is to our routine lives. Currently, such events are limited to larger metropolitan cities with many technological institutions that cover the organizing costs. As a result, they can be open to everyone, and several events are either free or low- cost, and therefore have significant outreach potential.
Rutgers would make an excellent venue for hosting a festival such as this. We have numerous world-class labs doing research in a wide variety of disciplines. An expert in almost any topic can be found within the different Rutgers campuses, and we have a ton of energetic and enthusiastic students who would love the opportunity to organize something like this for the entire community. First and foremost, this would foster a “culture of science” where people appreciate the relevance of science and exactly how pervasive it is in our routine lives. An added benefit is that science festivals also serve as great platforms for scientists to get an insight into public needs, and to get feedback on their work. Merely providing a venue for open scientific conversation is invaluable, and by promoting such events, we can build a strong community where the scientists and the public are equal participants and share common goals and visions.
For TAs teaching introductory classes, especially those with students from other majors whose motivation tends to be underwhelming, it’s easy to feel rather apathetic. Why should I care about teaching students who don’t really want to learn and, frankly, probably won’t end up in careers requiring this knowledge anyway?
But at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, that can be a mistake with disastrous consequences. One need look no further than this week’s big election to witness the real need for improved scientific literacy in our society. In recent years there has been no shortage of politicians making uninformed and sometimes willfully-ignorant statements concerning matters of science, and yet it often comes at little political cost. Besides the growing role of science and technology in our economy, a scientifically-informed citizenry is essential if we are to confront critical issues in climate change, healthcare, and energy in the 21st century.
If we hope to change this situation, the responsibility lies with us as educators. It starts in our classrooms, especially the introductory courses that can make or break students’ perceptions of science for the rest of their lives. When you teach these students, think of the attitudes about science you want them to someday pass down to their children, and the attitudes they will hold when they evaluate political candidates and head to the ballot box. Will they be able to discern legitimate science from pseudoscience in the media? Will they be willing to continue investing in the scientific research enterprise that has transformed our way of life forever? Will they make decisions based on evidence and careful reasoning — rather than intuition and ideology — and demand that their political leaders do the same?
Too often we scientists consider these introductory courses, and indeed the general obligation to educate the public, to be less important than pure research and training the next generation of scientists and engineers. But we do so at the peril of our discipline and of our society.