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Tue, Feb 07

Science Policy In The Classroom

Students in the Duke Law School are making it easy for you to follow developments in science policy. When an alternative to writing yet another standard paper was proposed in their Science, Law & Policy class, the majority of the participants jumped at the opportunity.

SciPol focuses on tracking and analyzing developments in science policy. Faculty and students from around campus receive training and hands-on experience analyzing current policy actions in order to contribute to SciPol’s signature Policy Developments. The program launched last year and is now being incorporated into curriculum on campus.


Duke Law student Sarah Williamson studies national security law and policy. She enrolled in the Science, Law & Policy class last fall and opted to contribute to SciPol over writing a mid-term paper.

She recognizes how difficult it is for policymakers to keep up on rapid advancements in science and technology and how scientists struggle to convey their research and its impact in a way that non-scientists can understand. This gap presents an opportunity for Duke students.

“We need leaders,” says Sarah. “We need civically-minded people to think about the challenges of today.” – a tenet shared by the SciPol program.

She became drawn to policy issues surrounding cybersecurity and data privacy early in her education. She currently examines the technology that connects our world and its impact on national security and civil rights.

“I started to see national security as the trunk of the policy tree and every decision we make stems from that.”

Sarah’s focus may already feel somewhat familiar. We live in a society where cybersecurity and data privacy are ubiquitous concerns. Simply owning a smart phone or transacting online makes them inescapable, personally relevant issues.

The 2016 presidential race brought numerous cybersecurity issues to the forefront of public discourse. Leaked emails and allegations that Russia had tampered with the election via state-sponsored cyber activities left many feeling confused, cheated, or helpless during the election process.

From a commercial standpoint the issues take on additional dimension. New emerging technologies encourage consumers to eagerly, and often unknowingly, volunteer their information to a hungry data-driven market.

The rush to bring the next great technological convenience to market often results in woefully unsecure products or ethically questionable functionality. Take for instance the massive Internet outage last year, powered by easily hacked cameras and DVR equipment. Or Cayla, the intrusive doll that spies on your kids, sending voice recordings back to her toymaker’s servers.



Civic-minded leaders face difficult questions.

What is the government’s role in guarding individual data and consumer privacy as new technology is invented and introduced to the market? Should a private company be held accountable for vulnerabilities in their software or hardware that result in personal loss? To what extent should we forsake personal privacy in the name of national security?

Understanding the science and technology behind these questions is necessary for policymakers and the public to come to proper conclusions.

Similar questions exist in all corners of scientific research and the landscape is constantly shifting. The issues aren’t always so familiar and can become difficult to consider without special training or education. Even in the small Science, Law & Policy class a communication gap quickly emerged.

“The fact that we were on different planets was very clear from the beginning,” says Sarah, recalling the variety of student backgrounds in the Science, Law & Policy class. “In the first week we were talking about CRISPR and I’m like what the heck is this?”

CRISPR is a revolutionary genome editing tool with controversial applications.

Only 6 of the 18 other members in Sarah’s class were law students. The rest were a mix of master’s students and PhD’s with various educational backgrounds. Few had any experience in the policymaking process.

Making complicated policy actions and the science behind them more accessible to the public is one step toward cultivating a civically-minded population. Engaging relevant actors at each step of the policymaking process strengthens the conversation and the outcome.

By incorporating science policy analysis in the classroom, Duke University is training its students to consider these issues wherever they end up working.

Buz Waitzkin, JDProfessor Michael “Buz” Waitzkin, JD, teaches the Science, Law & Policy course.

“Whatever career path you take, much of the work you will be doing is going to be governed by statutes that are passed, regulations that are enacted, or court decisions that are issued. If you can’t understand them, I think you’re job effectiveness will really be inhibited.”

The opportunity to participate in SciPol is a fresh and informative experience for his class. Students come away with a better understanding of how science policy is formulated and translated into law or regulations. Understanding how their own research will go on to affect the public helps contextualize their efforts beyond the lab and broadens their impact on society.

In turn, those without formal STEM or policy training are given an approachable resource that informs their own civic activity.

Read Sarah’s SciPol contributions and more at