Political Science and the Science of Politics: A Crash Course in U.S. Policymaking

Summer is intern season in Washington, D.C. Young people from across the country journey to the capital to work, network and expand their professional acumen. For the DukeEngage Science & Society program, summer is also a time to explore the boundaries between policy and the scientific process.

DukeEngage Washington, D.C. takes students with experience in science and public policy and places them in internships where they confront the importance of connections between those two, often disparate, fields.

Originally focused solely on health policy, the DukeEngage Science & Society summer internship program now highlights many arenas of federal science policy. One student used his computer science coursework from Duke to the help the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) study the impacts of quantum computing. Another student used her political science research skills to help the Niskanen Center better confront climate change skepticism and to shape public debate.

Program Director Thomas Williams, said the students’ work “experience is augmented through community engagement, group discussions, a speaker series and an array of enrichment activities that provide them with the skills and experiences to consider the many facets of policymaking, especially as it relates to the use of science in the process.”

DukeEngage Science & Society breaks students out of siloed academic pursuits and challenges their classroom work with real world problems.

In addition to opening the program to different science policy fields, Williams has added in a speaker series for students to directly address experts. Students this summer discussed drug pricing with a pharmaceutical lobbyist and debated climate change with a former lawmaker – all in the name of asking difficult questions of those in power.

Closer to the students’ D.C. home, Williams encourages discussion of gentrification and urban development. Sometimes, local level government more clearly shows the ramifications of science in policymaking than one can see at the federal level.

As Washington, D.C. grapples with a growing population, and income and quality of life disparities around the city, the program hopes to open students to difficult conversations on urban design, public transportation, clean water and even what items a city should recycle. In order for the DukeEngage Science & Society program to engender a sense of policy as service, Williams and program staff use city-level issues to put in context the difficulty of deriving scientific direction and policy solutions.

Connecting dots for the students is only half the program’s mandate. Connecting dots for policymakers is the other half. According to Williams, one of the easiest ways to convey scientific information with policymakers comes from “embracing narrative in addition to science – placing value in storytelling makes science approachable and relevant in everyday life.” As policymakers confront a deluge of information each day, the information best presented to them will last. Politicians love a good story.

Williams pursued his masters in bioethics while finishing his law degree at the University of Pennsylvania. He knows well the balance between communication, deliberation and the scientific process. That background in diverse fields helps redirect the DukeEngage D.C. program toward a more holistic understanding of science in policy.

All DukeEngage programs hope to build a sense of civic responsibility in students through community service and volunteering. But the Science & Society Program shows students the potential benefits of a career serving the public interest. Although limited to three months, the program leaves students with skills and perspectives to serve them a lifetime. With an appreciation for the complexity and importance of getting science policy right, a DukeEngage D.C. experience far outlasts the summer intern season.