Science outside the lab: changing perspective on the role of science & engineering society

Sunday, 15 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Michael J. Bernstein, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ
Science and technology enhance material and physical well-being of individuals in unprecedented ways, yet persistent societal inequities and environmental degradation shed doubt on the ability of modern science and technology to advance broad-based societal progress. One factor thought to perpetuate the divide between technological advance and societal progress is how scientists and engineers are trained to filter out subjective, societal concerns in pursuit of pure science. Challenging these assumptions and seeking to restore the links between technological advance and societal progress has been the goal of Science Outside the Lab (SOtL), a decade-old policy immersion program in Washington, D.C. for graduate students in science and engineering. The two-week SOtL program invites policy analysts, lobbyists, business people, and decision makers from across the political spectrum to discuss their work with participants. Participants face the conflicting realities presented by special interests jockeying for the future of science and technology, and experience how these societal concerns are inherent in scientific pursuits. Does encountering science outside the lab influence participants’ awareness of how science and technology policy shapes the relationship between science and society? If so, how? To measure program impacts, the research team crafted three novel assessment tools to better understand participants’ perspectives on the role of scientists and engineers in society, as well as the role of information and values in shaping science policy. These tools included a Likert scale survey of participant perspectives, a series of rapid reflections to assess participant emotional responses to speakers and activities, and a concept mapping exercise to assess changes in participant knowledge of science policy. Statistically significant changes in participant perspectives demonstrate that after the program, individuals increasingly agree that more information from scientists and engineers will not necessarily lead to better policy outcomes or resolve policy debates. Further, participants increasingly recognize that actions by scientists and engineers to advance information to policymakers exemplify how science and engineering are a special interest group competing to shape science and technology policy. Increases in the quantity and density of connections represented in concept maps, as well as changes in the primary factors affecting science policy—from research and science to budget and politics—demonstrates participants’ more nuanced post-program grasp of how science is shaped by society. Finally, participant reflections on memorable aspects of the program correlate with sessions that promoted senses of control and wellbeing, affects endemic to empowerment. Future research with prior SOtL graduates will assess whether and how participants’ empowered perspective translates into action to strengthen connections between scientific advance and societal progress.