For D.C.’s DukeEngage Students, Science and Society are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Duke’s Science&Society program tries to pluralize the world of science. In order to magnify the social benefit of scientific progress, Science&Society endeavors to make it more accessible, just, and integrated into society.  But uses of the word ‘science’ are vast, and the use of ‘science’ in the policy world is even more nebulous. With working definitions of ‘science’ and the scientific process are so easily misconstrued in national policymaking, Duke’s Science&Society program has collaborated with DukeEngage to train the next generation of health leaders to engage the policy machine and vice versa.

 

Their research encompasses genome ethics, health and medicine, law and policy, neuroscience and society, engineering and technology, and the social and humanistic studies of science. The program and its corollaries understand that health issues are innately complex and require multiple lenses to be both robust and long-lasting.

 

For example, Science& Society studies how issues of money, politics, race, sex, and culture affect sports entertainment and its role in society. They study the relationship between how food, fat, and urban life contribute to rising rates of obesity and diabetes in India. Traditional studies of public health as a purely hard-science issue paints half the picture. Science&Society renegotiates the boundaries between scientific study and anthropological study in order to truly understand the problems afflicting local communities.

 

Reflecting the greater mission of Science&Society, this summer’s DukeEngage students are not simply fulfilling internships, they are combining fields and interests. “Academically, I have been trying to synthesize my major—Economics—with my career aspiration of working in the medical field, so that I can hopefully be a more effective and thoughtful physician… I became involved in this program to take on thinking about this topic of science policy and, in the future, to hopefully apply insights from this program to be able to help others without making the mistakes that some scientists and policymakers do” said Economics major William Song (T’19).

 

The DukeEngage program aims to bridge the gap between scientific research and the policy establishment. But as anyone remotely involved in politics knows, it often feels as if the political process itself is the hurdle. Chief among the causes is a lack of trained scientists holding office in the three branches of government, according to Song.

 

This dearth leads to simple translation errors and difficulties navigating uncommon and innovative research: “For scientists, communicating scientific findings accurately and in an interesting way to nonscientists seems to be a challenge. For policymakers, understanding science and being aware of the dangers of misinterpreting data seems to be a challenge. A broader understanding of science policy would hopefully push scientists to consider policy questions and policymakers to be able to effectively use scientific evidence” said Song.

 

However, the students are not spending their entire summers hammering away at memos and in policy meetings; they are navigating how science is (or isn’t) used in specific fields. According to the Science&Society DukeEngage Program Director Thomas Williams J.D., “we have been able to secure a private visit to the Supreme Court for a discussion of science policy, and we spent a day in Annapolis, Maryland meeting with state government policy makers. In both cases, we were able to engage in meaningful discussions about the process and substance of science policy. Another highlight was a visit to the NPR studios, where the group had the opportunity to meet with the science journalist Joe Palca, to discuss his work and the relationship between media, science and policy.”

 

A lawyer by training, Williams developed an interest in bioethics in law school, spending his spare time reading about the field and catching up on current events. He chose his law school, the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, because it offered a joint J.D./Masters in Bioethics program. While pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship at Duke Law, he helped launch the SciPol website, an online resource that tracks upcoming science policy issues. When he heard the Science&Society program was taking over the DC Duke Engage program Williams “jumped at the opportunity to engage with undergraduate students and return home to my old stomping grounds in the DC metro area.”

 

Any DukeEngage program demands students dive into a world outside their ken. But DukeEngage’s Science&Society summer in Washington, D.C. drops students into the jungle of American policymaking and all the animals who come with it. During their two months in D.C., students serve at government agencies, NGOs, non-profits and lobbying organizations where they assist with the analysis of policy questions, formulate policy options, and make choices at a national level regarding science policy.

 

As with many Duke summer programs, students hopefully draw from what they have learned in the classroom and apply it to real-world situations. This program is as much about science and society as it is about science in the service of society. If the goal of Science&Society is to maximize the social benefit of scientific progress by making it more accessible, just, and integrated with communities, then this year’s DukeEngage students have already prevailed simply by being a part of the greater policy conversation.