From Data to Policy: An Undergraduate Program in Research and Communication

Article excerpt

Regulatory decisions to protect public health and the environment depend heavily on scientific information. However, the relationship between science and decision making can be elusive, despite the ever-stronger case for sound science in solving growing health and environmental problems. Although decision makers seek the most reliable scientific knowledge to justify and guide their choices, often the knowledge that is usable is the knowledge that is available--however frail its basis in peer-reviewed science.

To investigate this problem, a workshop was sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. Conclusions emphasized both the need for decision makers to pay more attention to scientific guidance and also the need for scientists to improve the content and timing of their communications with policy audiences (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2008). Sherwood L. Boehlert, former chairman of the Committee on Science in the U.S. House of Representatives, has remarked that "policy-makers have to do their homework about science just as much as scientists need to do some homework about policy and politics" (Boehlert, 2007).

The knowledge relayed to decision-making bodies should not only be scientifically credible, but it must be timely and directly connected to relevant policy issues. For example, as investigated by the students in the program described next, research on health effects of specific flame-retardant chemicals should be related to the flammability regulations that promote their use.

Most traditional scientific training does not include translation of research to venues beyond the peer-reviewed science literature. However, scientists have the greatest understanding of research results and credibility with decision makers, the public, and the media. It is important that scientists themselves are involved in the analysis and communication of their work. It is no longer sufficient to rely on isolated stages starting with research by scientists, then dissemination by media professionals, to adoption by policy makers. Rather, the entire science-to-policy process should be transdisciplinary, application oriented, and subject to multiple accountabilities (Bielak, Campbell, Pope, Schaefer, & Shaxson, 2008).

Introducing policy concepts and perspectives into undergraduate and graduate science courses and student research programs is a first step, even if possibly daunting to some faculty. Few faculty have been explicitly educated to teach science from such a perspective (Labov & Huddleston, 2008). However, this is a valuable component of a well-rounded and progressive science education. Including science policy in the curriculum also increases student participation, enthusiasm, and knowledge retention (Chamany, Allen, & Tanner, 2008).

Aligned with this goal are graduate fellowship programs like that of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which young PhD scientists work with members of Congress and congressional committees. Similarly, individual professional societies are now sponsoring congressional fellowships for PhD scientists. However, few programs that bridge science and policy exist for undergraduates. Though research courses and academic-term and summer-research experiences are offered to science students at many universities, like those funded by or modeled after the National Science Foundation (NSF) programs, few incorporate a policy component. A survey of faculty representatives of NSF-funded undergraduate research programs revealed that essential features of these programs include reading peer-reviewed literature, faculty mentorship, study design, laboratory techniques, and an opportunity for professional quality papers and presentations (Lopatto, 2003). Missing from this popular paradigm is incorporation of policy considerations into design, research, and analysis and, importantly, communication of research results to decision makers and the public. …