The Science, Technology and Public Policy Program (STPP) at the Ford School of Public Policy hosted a virtual conversation Wednesday evening with Kumar Garg, senior managing director at Schmidt Futures, who spoke about using scientific innovation in public service. Jason Owen-Smith, a Sociology professor and STPP faculty affiliate, started off the event by elaborating on why STPP chose to host the conversation with Garg.

“STPP is an interdisciplinary, university-wide program dedicated to training students, conducting cutting-edge research and informing the public and policymakers on issues at the intersection of technology, science, equity, society and public policy,” Owen-Smith said.

Public Policy Professor Shobita Parthasarathy, who is also the director of STPP, moderated the conversation and began by asking Garg about his background in the public sector. Parthasarathy asked how Garg’s experience working for the government impacted his perspective on scientific innovation’s general role.

“There are so many directions that our conversation could go in,” Parthasarathy said. “I’d love to start (talking about public service) and maybe later we’ll talk about your (Garg’s) own trajectory, which I think is incredibly fascinating.” 

Before doing philanthropy work at Schmidt Futures, Garg said he worked in the U.S. Capitol under the Obama administration as the assistant director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Garg said he helped spearhead the White House Science Fair, which has been an annual tradition since 2010. When considering how policymakers should engage with scientific advancement, Garg said he has always found it helpful to consider the potential positive and negative effects of each individual innovation at a national level.

“One should approach science and technology from a public policy lens,” Garg said. “Think about ways that we drive advancements in tech, and ways to apply those advancements towards larger national priorities and social outcomes.”

While working for the Obama administration, Garg developed the first-ever National Innovation Strategy. Garg’s strategy involved acknowledging the pivotal role innovation plays in driving economic growth. The Innovation Strategy encourages the government to spur innovation through public competitions and challenges that are open to innovators around the country — such as the White House Science Fair.

“Prizes and challenges can (bring) non-traditional performers to a solution,” Garg said.

As an example of the efficacy of innovation competitions, Garg explained how Harvard University hosted a medical innovation challenge in 2010 to look for potential solutions to Type 1 diabetes. Harvard opened up the challenge to participants outside of the professional medical community and found that a number of high-quality solutions came directly from diabetes patients themselves.

“It actually makes sense — there’s a number of ways that patients can think of solutions that are interesting and relevant,” Garg said.

Garg said he hopes the current generation of college students are able to take what they have learned by experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic into the workforce with them. He said current students have spent the last couple of years navigating various problems and theorizing solutions. That experience will be invaluable going forward, Garg said.

“This generation of students will be the COVID generation,” Garg said. “They saw up close how this is a problem that science and technology can help solve. That is how we are going to develop new solutions.”

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