Skip to main content

ASU program helps researchers, government speak the same language

Michael Bernstein with winning poster at AAAS meeting
April 07, 2015

Researchers and government policymakers are key players in the world of science policy – but though both are crucial for societal process, they may not understand how best to work together. And that can be a big obstacle to success, one that ASU is working to solve.

“There seems to be a profound disconnect between what policymakers and decision makers need and what the scientific community provides,” said Kiera Reifschneider, a senior physical scientist with the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C., and former post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU. She first noticed the lack of understanding between the two groups while finishing her doctorate in biochemistry at ASU and working with the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes.

Fighting that disconnect is the aim of the consortium’s Science Outside the Lab program. The two-week program, held in Washington, D.C., for the past 10 summers, exposes graduate science and engineering to policy analysts, lobbyists, business people, decision makers and program managers – the key players in the science policy process.

The goal is to give the students a better understanding of their role in the very complex world of research funding and science policy.

But does the program really work? Do the students have a better grasp of the big picture of scientific progress? Have their minds been opened?

Reifschneider and Michael Bernstein – a research associate with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU and a doctoral candidate in the School of Sustainability – set out to answer that.

The team knew that a more traditional assessment, such as a pre- and post-test of information or a simple survey, wouldn’t be enough.

“We’re not interested in regurgitated knowledge,” Bernstein said. “It’s more about do they have a deeper and more profound understanding of the complexities of the science policy space?”

To get at this more holistic outcome, Bernstein and Reifschneider put together a suite of three assessments:

• The first, a concept map, had students – before and after going through the program – write down the people, organizations and factors involved in shaping science policy and the connections among them.

• The second, a burst reflection, had students write down the first five words that came to mind in response to program discussions and activities. The words were scored for their emotional content related to happiness, control and excitement.

• Finally, the students filled out a survey before and after the program about their views on the roles of scientists and technical experts in society and of information and values in science policy.

Bernstein presented results of this novel assessment approach at the 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science student poster competition, where he won the social sciences category. The achievement was announced in the April 3 issue of Science.

Preliminary results of the assessments are promising. For example, the students’ concept maps included a more complex web of interconnected nodes after going through the program.

“All participants at the beginning of the program knew that government played a role in science policy, but just called it ‘government,’ ” said Jameson Wetmore, associate director of engagement with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society and another co-author of the poster. “After the program, many listed a much larger number of government groups and agencies and their individual roles.”

Wetmore, an instructor in the Science Outside the Lab program, has long wanted to illustrate with data the radical changes that students go through.

“They end up with a much better appreciation of how important government officials are to the future of science and of the many sets of expertise and issues that need to be taken into account in the innovation process,” Wetmore said. “Each student takes away something different, and each of their minds is expanded in a different way.”

Determining whether alternative education experiences, such as Science Outside the Lab, work to improve science and engineering graduate students’ understanding of the policy process is critical to the Center for Nanotechnology in Society’s broader goal of improving outcomes of emerging technologies in society.

For his dissertation, Bernstein is developing assessments for this and another alternative training program for scientists and engineers. He and his co-authors also hope to conduct a study that looks at longer-term outcomes of Science Outside the Lab.

“The real payoff comes when these scientists and engineers are at a company or university and decide to sit down with policymakers to help decide the best research direction to make sure their work is useful,” Wetmore said. “Ultimately, we want them to understand the breadth of the world and to consider their impact on it as they do their work.”