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Taking a STEP to Bridge the Science-Policy Interface

Are government mask mandates effective and constitutional? Is the vaccine reasonably safe? Should we require vaccine passports to travel? The highly consequential debates raging in many corners around which actions are appropriate to tackle COVID-19 underscore the profound importance of interactions at the science-policy interface. Many of us are counting on scientific and technical information to provide insights into what needs to be done. However, those insights quickly run up against matters that are social, cultural, and political in nature. They go to the heart of our values, like the tensions between individual rights, collective responsibilities, and the role of the government in our lives. Many potential actions require significant state investment and intervention. People profoundly disagree on what should be done and who gets to decide.

Scientists, engineers, and other technical experts need a seat at the table, but their invaluable contributions are almost always important pieces of complex socio-technical conversations rather than ends unto themselves. Technical expertise frequently interacts with societal and policy matters and thus is best understood and framed in context if it is to be most useful and effective, responsive to diverse needs, credible in the eyes of all stakeholders, and attuned to our values.

The new Science, Technology, and Engineering in Policy (STEP) program is providing science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and health care (STEM-H) students, scholars, and practitioners with the perspectives and skills needed to be more effective collaborators in policy-making processes. The program develops participants’ abilities to engage with complex public problems, recognizing that they are social and technical in nature. The program’s goal is to develop and enhance STEM-H students, practitioners, and scholars’ understanding of policy processes and capacity to integrate scientific and engineering knowledge with public policy reasoning.

A series of courses have been developed under the STEP banner. A graduate course called Policy Gateway: Policy and Decision Making in STEM-H Domains was taught in the Fall (2020) semester and the second core course—Decision Making, Reflective Practice, and Engagement in STEM-H Domains—is currently underway. A 12-credit STEP graduate certificate just cleared the governance process and is now recruiting students from disciplines as diverse as environmental engineering and human development. The certificate is targeted towards VT graduate students from STEM-H disciplines but open to anyone. The STEP team is not stopping there though; preliminary discussions are already underway around potential future offerings, including one in the National Capital Region for mid-career professionals. The program will host Lynn Scarlett, former Deputy (and Acting) Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of the Interior and current Chief External Affairs Officer of the Nature Conservancy for our first keynote seminar on April 27th.

The STEP program is a product of VT’s Policy Destination Area (DA). Faculty involved in teaching courses, serving on the advisory committee, and in other ways come from various schools and departments, ranging from the School of Public & International Affairs (SPIA) to the Department of Geosciences. This represents a realization of the inter- and transdisciplinary aspirations of VT’s DA and broader Beyond Boundaries initiatives. 

Debates around COVID-19 are but one example of the serious issues we are grappling with that necessitate better deliberations at the science-policy interface. The STEP program aims to improve scientific and technical experts’ understanding and capacities to be more effective participants in those processes.

For more information, please visit www.step.vt.edu or contact me at tschenk@vt.edu