Scientific leaders make policy recommendations to University

By Ian Dillingham, Statement Editor
Published March 31, 2015

Scientific leaders are looking to lay the groundwork for new science policy initiatives at the University and beyond. The exploration of initiatives was discussed at the Jerome B. Wiesner Symposium on Tuesday.

The two-day event at Rackham Amphitheatre brought together some of the nation’s leading scientific minds and policymakers to discuss the current state of scientific research. During the symposium, attendees created a series of recommendations for the University to better engage with policy issues facing the field.

Topics from the conference covered a wide range of concerns within the scientific community: the lack of scientific representation in policymaking, the need for improved scientific communication to the public, the challenges facing STEM education and the concerns over a lack of diversity in scientific fields.

The recommendations were presented by School of Education Dean Deborah Ball and Rosina Bierbaum, former dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment and current member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The list included improving science policy education for students, offering resources to faculty to support science communication and fostering engagement between the University, state government and federal government in policymaking.

Education

Several presenters discussed ways for Universities to potentially improve the quality of undergraduate education in STEM fields. The most pressing need identified was for students in science to gain a better understanding of science policy in the future.

Currently, the University offers a certificate program for graduate students in Science, Technology and Public Policy. The recommendations encouraged the expansion of cross-departmental programs like this. They also called for the University to compile a directory of currently offered courses in science policy, which would foster better review of its effectiveness in training students for potential careers in research or policy.

Whether through undergraduate curriculum or internships, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said scientists should spend as much as 10 percent of their time working on policy issues related to their research.

Given that many grants from federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, are funded through taxpayer dollars, many presenters said it is important for the public to understand the importance of continued investment in the sciences.

Holdren said scientists, engineers and mathematicians need to concern themselves with how the public receives research and how it is implemented in the public sphere. He added that the scientific community should also encourage young members who may wish to pursue policy professions full time.

“Obviously some will, at some point in their careers, engage with these issues full time,” Holdren said. “I think it is appropriate to train some people to do so early in their careers.”

A key dividing issue during the first day of discussion was how to implement such policy experiences in science curriculums. Some experts, such as former U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, promoted the use of fellowships to allow scientists to gain exposure in federal offices. Holt, who is currently chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, discussed his experience as a congressional intern and highlighted the role of current AAAS fellowships, which place young scientists in congressional and department offices in Washington, D.C. each year.

James Jackson, director of the Institute for Social Research, acknowledged that policy internships might not be suitable for every scientist, but said it was important to provide opportunities for students who might be interested.

Other panelists considered more formalized methods of integrating policy into science curriculums. Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, suggested involving students in science policy and history courses early in their academic career, along with experiential learning courses and internships. He added that it is concerning that many undergraduate and graduate students working in laboratories have little to no idea as to the source of their funding.

Physics Prof. Homer Neal, who currently conducts research at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, also known as CERN, expressed a similar sentiment. He noted that the College of Engineering allows certain science policy courses to count toward optional distribution requirements in some programs, but that LSA does not.

Rackham graduate students Kim Daley and Rachel Merzel said they believe that integrating policy courses would make sense either later in undergraduate coursework or early in graduate coursework.

Merzel referred to current funding methods in science as a “black box” — rarely do young scientists fully understand what happens to research grants after they are submitted to a federal agency for review. Because they rarely receive formal education to apply for grants, most researchers face a steep learning curve when attempting to do so in their professional careers. The pair agreed that formalized courses could overcome some of these obstacles.

Beyond policy decisions, several presenters discussed the need for improved STEM education and teacher certification courses. Ball said the current system of producing STEM teachers — a system that primarily involves students graduating from four-year institutions like the University before starting a teaching career — do not prepare graduates for the true challenges of teaching, such as understanding different learning styles and encouraging student to pursue a variety of fields.

“The most important job that we ask any adult in our society to do — the cultivation of the next generation of thinkers, doers, problem solvers — we really leave largely to chance,” Ball said. “It’s a problem that’s squarely in the responsibility of universities, and yet we fail often on university campuses to understand our role in that.”

Communication

In addition to education, improving scientific communication was another widely identified area of concern among many presenters. Recommendations in this area included providing training resources to faculty in media communications, hosting regular meetings of science policy experts on campus and encouraging engagement with government officials.

As scientific research struggles under the weight of sequestration — blanket cuts to government spending that have reduced scientific research significantly since 2013 — and other political pressures, there is a need for the community to develop effective means of communicating research to the public and Congress, said France Cordova, director of the National Science Foundation.

Cordova said some research — specifically, she referenced a now infamous video of a shrimp running on a treadmill — can receive criticism from the public as a frivolous use of taxpayer money. However, as was the case with the aforementioned video, she said there is almost always a serious scientific purpose for such studies that, if effectively communicated to the public, encourages support for such research.

Cordova added that the key is not creating communications experts within science, but rather convincing scientists to engage in heartfelt conversations with political leaders. In research, where emotional attachment to a subject is often discouraged, Cordova said it is important that scientists are able to communicate the personal importance of their own research to earn the public’s trust.

“When you speak from your passions, when you have something to say, when you have a good knowledge of and you’re truly interested in the person that you’re talking with and want to hear what they say, you are a communicator,” Cordova said. “I just don’t want anyone in this audience — and especially our young people — to sell themselves short because they haven’t taken some public speaking class.”

“If you take the effort to share what you care about, you can just make a tremendous difference,” she added.

In addition to communicating with Congress, presenters discussed the various ways that scientists could make their research more available to the public. Chemical Engineering Prof. Sharon Glotzer referred to the research being conducted in certain departments at the University as one of the best-kept secrets in science.

The presenters recommended the University provide resources and workshops that teach faculty how to better engage with media, acknowledging how such communication is often different from what a researcher might encounter when speaking with students or government officials.

Value

Another discussion held among the presenters regarded the value of public research universities to local and national communities. Traditionally universities are the harbingers of cutting-edge research and academia, but it appears the fundamental driving forces could be changing to reflect the changing needs of the country.

President Emeritus James Duderstadt highlighted the three main competencies of the modern research university: providing learning communities for students, promoting access to a broad scope of knowledge and verifying truth in sciences. While some of these roles have shifted in response to the rapid expansion of easily accessible online resources, the presenters contended that there is still a major role for universities in serving the public good.

Moving forward, universities will likely need to adapt to the changing landscape of public support for research. This could, in part, involve a reevaluation of how universities value different forms of research, — potentially placing more credibility on entrepreneurship and translational research, in addition to traditional research, as a path toward tenure.

Engineering Dean David Munson said his college has already started considering other aspects of impact that contribute to promoting learning goals. In particular, he noted that when requesting letters of recommendation for tenure appointments, the college uniquely asks about a professor’s contributions to entrepreneurship, along with standard measures of evaluation.

More broadly, the symposium drew attention to one major divergence in academia: professors are best suited to engage on complex social and policy issues, yet engaging with the public does not usually gain them the same level of recognition in their professional careers.

Jackson, director of the ISR, contended that science rarely rewards the best and brightest for taking interest in policy efforts. He said this perceived disinterest can color the entire scientific community when it comes to engaging the public.

“For a lot of our colleagues and for a lot of students, there is often something unseemly about involvement with regards to public policy and I think that we have a responsibility,” Jackson said.

One recommendation was for faculty to be asked to include engagement and outreach efforts in their annual report to deans and the provost, thus encouraging it as a means of career advancement. Another called for the University to better promote itself in Congress, the White House and Lansing in an effort to provide students the best possible chances of being selected for one of the highly competitive internships or fellowship that offer access to policymakers.

But value doesn’t just rest in public perception, but student perception as well.

As the symposium was drawing to a close, Space Science Prof. Lennard Fisk raised one last concern over challenges facing scientific research. While students are sometimes despondent over the inherent struggles of becoming a scientist, Fisk said it was important to keep in mind the public arena that they will eventually enter — the problems they face now only prepare them for the problems they might face later.

Neuroscience Prof. Huda Akil agreed with the sentiment, but said she still works to encourage students to pursue scientific careers. As she struggles with the pains of funding concerns and contentious policy, she said it’s important to remain optimistic and demonstrate to students that there are still great opportunities.

“The best antidote for the despair is for them to understand why I love what I do,” Akil said. “We have to remember why we love science.”