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#scipol

One purpose of this blog is to put together accessible, interesting stories that demonstrate why science policy decisions are important and worth thinking about. This page will catalog a few of these cases with notes, and links to additional information. You can also look at the “science policy” category in the right-hand column to see other relevant blog posts.

On this page you will find:

What is Science Policy?

One simple definition is: decisions about research. If you have a certain amount of money to spend on research, how should you invest it? What questions would you ask? What problems would be most important? If you are a government, foundation, or company, how much money should you invest in research? What good is scientific research, anyway?

Science policies are defined and carried out at many different levels:

  • An individual researcher deciding how to approach a question, mentor a grad student, or report research results, is making science policy.
  • Managers in government agencies or other organizations that fund research make science policy decisions all the time, when they write calls for proposals, set goals, or allocate funds.
  • Local, state, and federal politicians also make science policy through budgetary decisions, and the passage of legislation.

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Examples

Regulating Toxic Chemicals: deciding which questions to ask.

If you’re worried about the harmful effects of a chemical, there seems to be one just one simple, obvious research question: “Well, is it harmful or not?” Scientists receive many millions of dollars each year to try and answer this question. These studies are expensive. They involve immense complexity and irreducible uncertainty. What’s more, asking this question sets up conflict between industry and regulators, each of which brings its own data to the table. These debates can be endless.

But how about a different framing of the issue: “This chemical might be dangerous. Can we replace it with something harmless that works just as well?” With this question we avoid the uncertainties wrapped up in the first approach, focusing instead on direct, practical options. What’s more, this approach promotes cooperation between industry and regulatory authorities, as researchers look for solutions that benefit companies and society at large.

I wrote more about this case here. That blog post draws on an article in Nature by Dan Sarewitz: World view: A tale of two sciences.
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Understanding and Treating Mental Disorders: scientific definitions matter.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) is more than a manual. It is a science policy document of tremendous importance. This book, which in essence draws the line between sanity and insanity, has a major impact on the lives of individuals, the shape and overall size of the pharmaceutical industry, and our own cultural values as a society.

Here are a few engaging stories that demonstrate the importance of the DSM:

  • From On the Media: The Art of Diagnosis.
  • From This American Life: 81 Words. The story of how the American Psychiatric Association decided in 1973 that homosexuality was no longer a mental illness.
  • A broad and probing article by Louis Menand called “Head Case,” asks tough questions about the science of psychiatry.

These stories remind us that scientific findings can have major impacts on human life. The definitions contained in the DSM are underpinned by scientific research. Are science policy makers thinking about how research priorities are influencing the way we view health and illness?
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Hurricanes and Earthquakes: what good are computer models?

[coming soon]

Further Resources

[coming soon]
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