What Does Policy Mean to a Scientist?

Professor Buz Waitzkin discusses the importance of scientists who are policy-literate

At first thought, it seems easy to envision how policy might relate to science – it is the do’s and don’ts when it comes to science in the public. But during Professor Waitzkin’s seminar, I quickly realized that policy is much more than mere rules. He used a study of the Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Oregon to paint the picture of how policy can both encourage and discourage certain practices in the realm of science.

demonstrators hold signs supporting physician assisted suicide

Credit: Charles Dharapak / AP, Link

While Gonzales v. Oregon focused on the issue of local versus national authority- a common principle in government known as federalism- as it related to physician-assisted suicide, the stipulations behind the Oregon Death With Dignity Act (ODWDA) proved to be far more enlightening. Under the ODWDA, doctors could prescribe drugs intended for assisted suicide but could not dispense them. Though this seems like physician-assisted suicide was encouraged, the long waiting times to receive the prescribed drugs and required, hefty paperwork and documentation say otherwise.

Professor Waitzkin used this case as a launchpad to describe the underlying schemes behind incentivizing and disincentivizing scientific research, practice, and conduct. Funding and bans might seem obvious, but more creative routes such as qualifications- including medical and engineering licenses, tax policy, and patent policy are harder to discern. And things get even more complicated once principles such as federalism are considered, showing that policy can change based on location (e.g. state to state).

The Fellows left with a sense of questioning about how laws regarding science should be made and enforced, whether by ethical standards or constitutionality. With this overlap of science and policy, it appears that there is not really a true answer and that we might encounter issues like the one in our example firsthand as we develop in our chosen careers.

However, what I found most profound was a thought Professor Waitzkin inspired in me: how do I feel – as a burgeoning engineer – now that my area of interest- aerospace- is entering the public eye more than ever and is subject to more scrutiny through the form of policy and regulation? The influence and power that policy has on science has never felt more tangible to me now that I am part of the next generation of scientists.

While it may be daunting to move forward knowing that regulation can be used for or against my future research and more than one tension is at play in policy, I feel that my work has so much more importance, and I am more called to pursue opportunities through government agencies and defense companies. I have learned that it is better to embrace this science-policy intersection rather than avoid it when serving the public. Having an understanding of how policy operates in relation to scientific research and practice is crucial to our preparation as scientists intending to serve and help solve society’s issues.

Science cannot be viewed as a standalone field, and Professor Waitzkin’s seminar surely proved that.

“Having an understanding of how policy operates in relation to scientific research and practice is crucial to our preparation as scientists intending to serve and help solve society’s issues.”

Isabelle Sanz, Huang Fellow ’24

Sanz_IsabelleIsabelle is a first-year student from Charlotte, North Carolina pursuing a major in Mechanical Engineering with a certificate in Aerospace Engineering.