Linking Science and Social Issues

What Basic Science is Covered and How is it Linked to Public Policy Questions?

This course is broad in its scope, however a few themes clearly link science and public policy. They are: risk assessment, the necessity of evaluating the quality of data, the advantages of using models and their limitations, and the roles of multiple scientific disciplines in the debate. Our ability to successfully deal with the problems addressed in this course will require scientific and political collaboration and therefore the ability to communicate across many disciplines is essential. Some basic understanding of chemistry, physics, computer science and biology will make for a well-informed participant in the debate.

What Strategies Does the Course Use to Both Advance Science Education and Foster Civic Engagement?

The entire premise for the course is the need for a multidisciplinary approach to formulate meaningful public policies. The introductory lecture for each topic is used to define the scientific and political issues. The course is taught by individuals from multiple fields and the sections each end with lectures from a political scientist. These lectures in particular are a chance for the students to use the scientific knowledge they have gained to inform their discussions of the political issues.

The laboratories are designed to give the students an appreciation of the issues involved in collecting data that could be used in public policy debates. There are laboratories on computer models, their strengths and limitations; the use of statistics as they are applied to epidemiological studies; and the acquisition of proxy (indirect) data to infer conditions present before reliable measurements could be made. It is our belief that these experiences will give the students a realistic view of scientific data specifically as it is used in public policy debates. Finally, each student is required to write a paper on a topic relating to the course but not directly covered by it. It is expected that the paper will cover both
scientific and political aspects of their topic.

A Table Showing the Links Between Science and Civic Issues (Acrobat (PDF) 78kB Jul7 08)

What are the Capacious Civic Questions or Problems Addressed in the Course?

Many of the problems facing society today occur at unprecedented scales. Global warming, water contamination by persistent organic pollutants, the loss of stratospheric ozone and the loss of biological diversity are a few examples of human generated large scale problems that have both direct and indirect impacts on human health. How we deal with issues like these will affect millions or even billions of lives, and will largely define this period in history. We believe that in order to successfully deal with these challenges, we must develop new approaches and foster new attitudes about science for both practitioners of science and the general population.

The course we have developed, intended for first year students, deals with these issues head on and from multiple perspectives. Because of the complexity and scale of the problems a multidisciplinary approach is essential. We approach each of the topics addressed above from physical, chemical, computational, biological and political perspectives. Our goal is to give the students an appreciation for the scope of the problems and the need for multidisciplinary approaches to fully understand and devise solutions for them. In addition, the global nature of these problems means the solutions will require large-scale public policy changes and international cooperation. We feel students need to be aware of the unique challenges these present and have therefore incorporated a discussion of the political history and issues of each of the topics.