Who Makes Science Policy?

The title of this talk is a question which seems to have a simple answer. Having done research all summer, my mind circled around exactly that—the powers that regulate how it is conducted, how it is funded, and the restrictions on how it can be applied—attempting to somehow grasp for an answer. From reading about online privacy and social media ethics to drone laws and issues of federalism, it became clear to me that I had become a victim of my own mind, trapping myself in tunnel vision. My previous experiences had blinded me from so many parts of this question. And beyond this question exist others even more salient: should we make science policy, how should policy be made, and how should policy be implemented? By the way, what is science policy?

When I first saw this question I implicitly rephrased it to be “who makes research policy?” Through more thought, it became clear that almost every part of social infrastructure is impacted by science policy—take early childhood education as an example. Within this single institution, there arise questions regarding what children should be learning, how researchers could ethically observe how learning occurs, and then applying education-centered research to enrich that experience. I realize now that almost every institution follows this same model. There is a place for science in everything that we do. From multiple angles and perspectives, the world we know is associated with, and built by science policy.

Gabriel Goldhagen Poster Session Huang Fellows 2018“ width=

Through this outlook, we not only understand that this policy is essential, but also that to effectively create policy that fits the need of a very complex society, it is necessary to understand the similarly complex network that exists to create it. When I first approached this question, I immediately considered international and national declarations and organizations, governing the way that most scientific research is conducted. I feel that the most important thing to understand about science policy is the interconnected and yet jurisdictionally separate operations of different policy creation and enforcement bodies.

Rather than there being a defined hierarchy of power in creating science policy, it seems as though the system is far more fluid. This is why the Belmont Report came to my mind. Instead of the FDA accepting the Belmont Report, an internationally respected doctrine regarding ethical research conduct, as law, it borrows similar principals but maintains relaxed enumerated regulations. However, if a research project is to be conducted or applied in an international context, then it may become necessary for researchers to adhere not only to their national regulations, but also to those accepted by the international community. Despite the existence of this international-national approach to making policy, these two levels are not sufficient to meet the needs of individuals who live in communities and regions that vary greatly in cultural values, access to resources, and even acceptance of conventional scientific knowledge.

To account for this variation and mount checks on the policies of one and other, the national executive, judicial, and legislative branches; state legislative bodies; local bodies; universities; and professional organizations all function independently, as well as in conjunction. They conjure different types of policy elements, such as funding sourcing, tax breaks and subsidies, priority review, patents, criminalization, liability, and licensing. While this talk was given, and we learned about how these vastly different policies are created, I looked around at everyone in the room. Their eyes were transfixed. Staring into the face of knowledge, we realized that the world is larger than we thought it was. We delved into how these policies are used to shape the world around us, how they create a vision and protect people. Those are the goals of many of the Huang Fellows and the subject which dominated much of our conversation up to this point had been focused on how research can do that. This talk widened the frame of the conversation and offered a perspective removed from the direct conduct of research.

When considering a possible future in research, one has to be aware of how his or her research will be impacted by bodies outside of their immediate control. The potential danger of both the research itself and the applications of that research necessitate regulations to protect individuals and also influence how our world progresses, reflecting our values. In its purest form, that’s what policy is: a reflection of values and an expression of a society’s ambition, goals, and concerns.

The title of this talk is a question which seems to have a simple answer, but the answer is not simple. The answer is that we make science policy and that science policy is always around us, shaping the way that we live. Shaping the way that we shape. The path to effectively create a better future is to realize that we form science policy through discussion and action. The path to effectively create a better future is by personifying our values as policy.

Gabriel Goldhagen, Huang Fellow ’18

Gabriel GoldhagenGabriel is a Pratt student who is pursuing a major in Biomedical Engineering with a certificate in Science and Society.