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New STEP program bridges the gap between science and decision-making

Virginia Tech
(© Andriy Blokhin – stock.adobe.com)

The Virginia Tech Policy Destination Area launched its interdisciplinary graduate certificate program, Science, Technology and Engineering in Policy, in the midst of the COVID pandemic.

While launching the certificate under current conditions has had its challenges, COVID-19 is also making clear just how important such a certificate is for science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and health (STEM-H) students who are looking to work at the interface of science and policy.

“The myth that science alone can ‘solve’ situations like the pandemic has been dispelled,” said Todd Schenk, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning and director of the STEP program. “While we may want to avoid going too far the other way into a post-fact world, programs like STEP are intended to find a middle ground; we can deeply value scientific and technical expertise while acknowledging that it is part of a much bigger puzzle about how we make decisions and how we reconcile stakeholders’ values and interests with scientific evidence as we tackle complex problems.”

The STEP program, which was developed primarily for STEM-H students to understand and effectively engage in policy processes, aims to provide a grounding in policy concepts and skills. This foundation will enable students in science- and engineering-oriented fields to recognize the social and technical nature of complex problems and equip them with a new set of tools to bridge the gap between science and decision-making.

As part of the certificate launch and to promote conversations within the Virginia Tech community, the inaugural STEP seminar featured Lynn Scarlett, chief external affairs officer at The Nature Conservancy.

“We are very excited that Lynn Scarlett was able to serve as our keynote speaker,” said Schenk. “As someone who has played a senior role in government, which at its core applies science to decision-making, she has first-hand experience developing and implementing policies based on science to address complex issues.”

As part of the seminar on April 27, Scarlett addressed an audience of more than 90 people, including 41 faculty and 42 graduate students, representing more than 30 departments and seven colleges. She spoke of the myriad global challenges facing the planet today, including concerns over water quality, food safety, threatened wildlife habitats, and climate change.

“These challenges must be informed by science and technology,” said Scarlett, who formerly served as deputy secretary and chief operating officer at the U.S. Department of the Interior. “We have some very difficult decisions to make and there is no clear path forward. Science is essential to making good decisions.”

Scarlett explained that scientists and decision-makers often begin with very different mental models in mind, however. “Scientists ask ‘how does the world work?’, while the decision-maker is more focused on ‘what values and goals are we pursuing and how?’” said Scarlett.

She said she believes there are three primary factors that affect complex decisions: the nature of the challenges, the decision setting, and the human factor.

To illustrate the nature of challenges, Scarlett cited an example related to polar bears and the deliberations she oversaw at the Department of the Interior around whether they should be listed as “threatened” on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species list. She noted that “there were 19 different models about what could happen to polar bears. How could we reasonably decide what to do?”

She went on to explain that many significant challenges have interconnected complexity with a great amount of uncertainty. Knowledge is often dynamic and there are limits on the human predictive capacity. Scale can also be an issue and can impact both how problems and solutions are viewed.

According to Scarlett, the nature of decision-making is another factor in bridging the gap between science and policy. There are different types of decisions, such as those related to funding, laws, resource management, and risk assessment, which have intersecting dynamics with markets, cognition, and culture – as well as technologies.

Given these challenges, Scarlett stressed the importance of framing the problem and establishing decision boundaries. “Mutual learning and joint fact finding are critical as are how dialogues are initiated, structured, and sustained,” said Scarlett. “The earlier all stakeholders are involved, the greater the uptake.”

Lastly, Scarlett mentioned that human factors, such as the complexities of how people learn and cultural context, can play a major role in how open people are to information. “Incentive structures, perceptions, and trust matter,” said Scarlett.

The inaugural seminar was the first of a series of planned seminars that will focus on complex social and technical issues at the nexus of science, technology, and policy. Schenk sees the seminar not only benefiting students in the STEP program, but the entire Virginia Tech community interested in these complex problems.

“These seminars are meant to undergird a vibrant community focused on work at the science-policy interface; they are meant to be a space to build connections and foster shared learning,” said Schenk.

The 12-credit STEP certificate is composed of three core courses, the seminar, and two elective credits. The certificate is specifically designed to be flexible and there are no prerequisites. Students can also opt to take some courses without completing the entire certificate.

Kathryn Lopez, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, and founding president of the Science Policy Education and Advocacy Club, is completing the certificate with her other studies.

“There is a growing interest among STEM-H students to see their work have a broader reach. The STEP program offers a unique opportunity to learn about policy theory and explore how science can be used wisely to affect change, something which is not typically seen in STEM-H programs,” said Lopez.

Lopez has already completed one of the courses and is currently taking a second one.

“The big takeaway from the first course was learning how many hands are involved in the policy process,” said Lopez. “You might not think that policymakers are listening to scientists enough, but there are a lot of voices trying to be heard. Science may not always be the primary voice. This second class is focused on engaging with other stakeholders, not just scientists. It’s teaching me how to effectively convey the message I am advocating for with those stakeholders.”

The STEP program has established strong connections with faculty in STEM-H disciplines committed to transdisciplinarity in their own work and among their students. One of those faculty members is Amy Pruden, University Distinguished Professor of civil and environmental engineering, who served as a discussant for the seminar.

“The STEP program is very timely and will prepare students of the future to lead in informing and developing policy grounded in sound science and that is likely to be adopted and accepted by stakeholders.”

To learn more about the program or future seminars, visit the STEP website or contact Todd Schenk.

Story by Yancey Crawford


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