Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Science and Public Policy

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’d been asked to put together a very schematic course proposal, for a potential undergraduate elective in Science and Public Policy. The pro forma for the course proposal, which I’ve attached below the fold, didn’t allow for much detail – it basically just provides a brief description of the overarching course concept, and a bit of scaffolding on the structure of the course and assessment activities. I’ve just been told that the course concept has been accepted, and that a detailed course guide will need to be developed by 30 June. This requires much more work – and carries the additional wrinkle that I’m not sure whether I will be the one who actually delivers this course, so I need to design the course so that it doesn’t rely on my idiosyncratic disciplinary background…

So, with this in mind, I need to develop the detailed week-by-week course guide, complete with readings and activities, around the scaffolding provided by the pro forma. This process may require reworking or casting out some of the concepts from the course proposal. I’m personally not all that committed to the specific themes I used for the course proposal, and I’m more actively worried about the assessment tasks – whether there are too many of them, whether they assess the right skills, etc. So there is still a lot of conceptual work to be done, in addition to identifying readings and choosing activities.

As before, all suggestions are very, very welcome (and special thanks to Russ for his suggestions from the last round of discussion, some of which have already been expressed in the proposal pro forma, and still others of which will likely make their way into the more fleshed-out course guide).

Pro Forma: Science and Public Policy

Course Description

Scientific research and discoveries are central to some of the most contentious policy debates of our time. Policy makers are often called on to assess the validity and the applicability of scientific data, while members of the voting public are confronted with often conflicting claims about the implications of scientific research. The ability to interpret scientific claims, as well as the ability to analyse claims about science, has therefore become a vital skill for engaged public participation.

In this course, we will explore ten case studies where either the outcomes, or the very existence, of scientific research have posed problems for policy makers. We will organise our cases into the following themes:

  • The “Science Wars”: an introduction to contemporary debates over science and public policy;
  • Nature-Nurture: debates over what defines us as human beings;
  • “Wicked Problems”: debates involving heavily contested scientific research;
  • Limits to Science: debates over whether science can, or ought to, explore specific issues.

Each theme will introduce key scientific concepts, as well as the presentation of those concepts in policy and media documents. Class activities and assessment tasks for each theme will provide opportunities for students to assess scientific claims – as well as claims about science – critically, tracking back to the original sources and making independent judgments about the strengths and weaknesses of the underlying scientific data. At the same time, students will explore some of the philosophical and ethical debates over the role of scientific research, and learn to distinguish these philosophical debates from debates over the accuracy or applicability of scientific data to public policy.


By the end of this course, you should achieve:

  • A better understanding of the methodologies, theories and current research priorities of several major scientific disciplines;
  • An introductory knowledge of research methodology, statistics and other concepts required to assess the strengths and weaknesses of specific scientific studies;
  • An ability to read policy and media discussions of science critically, and to track back to the actual scientific studies being cited to assess the accuracy of the popular discussion;
  • Practice presenting scientific concepts to a “lay” audience, verbally and in writing;
  • An introductory knowledge of the history of science and changing ideals of scientific research and the role of science in society;
  • An understanding of key ethical debates relating to contemporary scientific research; and
  • An introduction to recent academic debates over the relationship between the sciences and the social sciences and humanities.

Overview of Learning Activities

This course will be organised around case studies of recent and historical controversies over the implications of scientific research and discovery. You will explore these case studies through:

  • lectures;
  • panel discussions with visiting scholars;
  • field trips;
  • course readings;
  • self-directed research and writing;
  • group activities; and
  • in-class discussion and debate.

Overview of Learning Resources

Core readings will be provided in a Reading Pack, which will be available on electronic and 2-hour reserve from the ________ library, or for purchase from __________.

You are also expected to access additional print, electronic and other resources related to specific assignments. Some of these additional materials will be identified in the weekly Research Guides; others you must identify independently, as part of your research for this course.

Overview of Assessment

You will be assessed on the following tasks:

(a) Written Tasks: 60% of final mark

You must submit three written pieces, one in each of the following topic areas:

  1. 10%: a brief (@800 word) “journalistic” article or audio-visual presentation explaining a scientific concept or debate to a “lay” audience;
  2. 20%: a brief (@1200 word) academic essay analysing the accuracy of the scientific claims presented in a written or audio-visual intervention into a policy debate;
  3. 30%: a (@2000 word) research essay on either the policy implications of a recent scientific controversy, or the scientific implications of a recent policy proposal.

(b) Verbal Tasks: 24% of final mark
You must organise and participate in one or more debates on specific scientific controversies. Where possible, visiting scholars or others with relevant expertise in the topic will be invited to observe the debate and provide feedback.

(c) Class Activities: 16% of final mark
Classes and tutorial sessions are designed to be interactive, and you will be assessed on your participation in these interactive activities.

9 responses to “Science and Public Policy

  1. MT May 19, 2006 at 2:23 am

    These are probably all obvious and reflect my Amero-centrism to boot, but may I recommend:

    – Abstinence Education for curing Africa of AIDS
    – How to turn regulation over to the regulated with the right appointees
    – Scientific community push-back (Union of Concerned Scientists)
    – How government can play deaf to the very science it funds
    – Kyoto, Carbon limits
    – Reagan’s destruction of Carter’s alternative energy research programs (wind, solar, low-emission vehicles…) and how economics and oil prices in particular figure in such policy decisions
    – The game of “What if Gore in 2000” regarding US science policy
    – Scientific testimony in court, judging if an expert witness is providing “junk science” (e.g. US Supreme’s “Daubert” decision…plenty of good stuff in among the Amici submissions)
    – What’s a politician to do when a scientist comes to her with the results of a simulation? (I’m not sure, but I tend to think of this as posing a different challenge–at least practically to politicians–than other kinds of evidence: relatedly, do theorists and experimentalist scientists talk differently and do politicians know or need to know to tell the difference? It may be a little like knowing party affiliation in politics)

    ….enough for now.

    Good luck! Sounds likely to be a fun and important course.

  2. MT May 19, 2006 at 2:27 am

    Oh: Overproduction of PhDs to drive research. Economics of scientific productivity. EO Lawrence had his cyclotron built by a post-doc earning 25 cents (75 cents?) per hour (it was the Great Depression in the US)

  3. MT May 19, 2006 at 2:30 am

    i.e. government funded overproduction of PhDs–by grants for science education–and where “over” is relative to reasonable expectations about the number of jobs available after the low-wage dues-paying period.

  4. N Pepperell May 19, 2006 at 9:07 am

    Thanks for all of this. I’m also struggling with the issue of not making the course too “American”, since the specific hot spots in the US science wars are only… er… tepid spots over here…

    The overproduction of PhDs is an issue dear to my heart, although the Australian academic job market is actually nowhere near as dire as the one in the US. (I gather that there have been periods in the recent past when it has been but, at the moment, there’s a bit of a generational change happening, and some positions are gradually opening up). I think this would be a fantastic topic for a slightly different course – although I may change my mind as I think more about it: certainly this is one of the things politicians must make decisions about, and it could be interesting to look through one of the various “crisis of science/math skills” discussions, and at the reasoning behind decisions that we “need” a particular number of scientists trained in a specific field… And there is a very active debate at the moment about how to assess research quality and thus allocate university funding… As well as a concern about whether we’re investing enough in research and development, and worries about a “brain drain” to the US, UK and elsewhere…

    The alternative energy issue has lots of potential local material – lots of recent debates about Australia’s local energy production and export markets. Environmental issues are the one theme, though, where I’m worried that the subject may be discussed exhaustively (or, at least, to the point where students are tired of the issue…), before students reach an elective course. If anyone is lurking who has feedback on this, I’d appreciate it…

    In terms of things like expert testimony: yes – I’m hoping to find a number of specific examples where students can do a bit of digging and assess specific slaims. Ditto with media representations of scientific studies, which would hopefully provide a good path, not simply into the trope of “reporters need to understand basic science” – which is true, but probably not historically unique – but also into a discussion of the commercialisation of scientific research and the deliberate use of the media to publish early research results…

    The whole issue of simulations is, I think, what I had in mind for the “wicked problems” theme (although that term can encompass more than just simulations and modelling). I have to admit that this is the topic I find most daunting, because I think it will be the hardest to communicate well in the short time span I’m going to have. It takes a while to get a feeling for how complicated some issues are – how many assumptions feed into the collection of, and extrapolation from, empirical data – and even more time to get a feeling that this complexity doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is complete guesswork and we might as well flip a coin…

    I like the concept of “party affiliation” as a metaphor for research orientation.

    Lots to think about…

  5. MT May 19, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    One more to think about? Testing drugs in the developing world. And/or testing drugs on prisoners. Oh, and the impact or animal rights protesters on research.

    Simulations wicked? I’m kinda up on simulating, so you could try me if you have questions and are short on better options.

  6. N Pepperell May 20, 2006 at 1:06 am

    It just occurred to me that my word choice might seem odd and, just in case, I should perhaps clarify that I’m thinking of the “wicked problems” concept from Rittel and Webber, so, trying to deal with the special issues that arise when you try to analyse contentious, fuzzy, unique problems…

    The biodiversity team in the Re-Imagining project here are doing some really good work developing models and simulations for the impact of habitat loss, which gives me some local resources, but I’d appreciate hearing other ideas on how to tackle the issue.

    And, yes, medical testing is a very good topic – aside from the issues you mention, there is also the issue of the intersection of intellectual property claims and medical research…

  7. MT May 20, 2006 at 5:53 am

    Yeah, patent reform for drugs is a great one.

  8. Russ May 20, 2006 at 9:26 pm

    Did I mention GM crops before? It drifts into environmental areas again, but has quite a few angles of contention: mono-genetic agriculture and agri-businesses; public fear of genetic research; and long-term versus short term risk. Assessing risks is one of those themes that will apply everywhere in a subject like this, although the literature on risk assessment is overwhelmingly boring as you probably know.

    There are lots of examples in Artificial Intelligence research of approaching “Wicked Problems”. They have the advantage that they get to see their simulations break horribly (or succeed within a very limited frame) quite quickly, so they tend to be more cynical. But I am not aware of any general treatments that cover the whole (or even significant parts) of the range of potential places that a simulation could go wrong. It is the sort of thing that lends itself more easily to a class activity than theory. “How would you simulate people walking into the room to sit down?”, is both quite simple and extremely hard depending on what you want to show.

  9. N Pepperell May 20, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    Yeah, I think the GM issue is a particularly good one – I can’t remember whether you mentioned it in the earlier thread, but it is a case study I plan to use. There is a lot of fairly accessible material on the subject (not that I’ve tackled this material to select exactly what I’d use yet, but I’m familiar enough to know that decent undergraduate-level material is out there…). It’s also a subject on which I’d assume some students have opinions, or at least vague predispositions, coming into the course.

    I hadn’t considered the potential for a hands-on demonstration of a “wicked problem” as a way of introducing the concept – it’s a good idea, although I probably have a far fuzzier sense than you do of how to implement it…

    In terms of treatments of the potential places simulations could go wrong: the nature of this course is such that it’ll never give a comprehensive sense of how things could go wrong – with simulations or with any other topic… My main worry with the issue of simulations is how to communicate some sense of the contingencies involved, without pushing students into a sort of “pox on all their houses” scepticism…

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