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Science Outside the Lab: Helping Graduate Students in Science and Engineering Understand the Complexities of Science Policy

Abstract

Helping scientists and engineers challenge received assumptions about how science, engineering, and society relate is a critical cornerstone for macroethics education. Scientific and engineering research are frequently framed as first steps of a value-free linear model that inexorably leads to societal benefit. Social studies of science and assessments of scientific and engineering research speak to the need for a more critical approach to the noble intentions underlying these assumptions. “Science Outside the Lab” is a program designed to help early-career scientists and engineers understand the complexities of science and engineering policy. Assessment of the program entailed a pre-, post-, and 1 year follow up survey to gauge student perspectives on relationships between science and society, as well as a pre–post concept map exercise to elicit student conceptualizations of science policy. Students leave Science Outside the Lab with greater humility about the role of scientific expertise in science and engineering policy; greater skepticism toward linear notions of scientific advances benefiting society; a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the actors involved in shaping science policy; and a continued appreciation of the contributions of science and engineering to society. The study presents an efficacious program that helps scientists and engineers make inroads into macroethical debates, reframe the ways in which they think about values of science and engineering in society, and more thoughtfully engage with critical mediators of science and society relationships: policy makers and policy processes.

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Notes

  1. Alternatively referred to as a “linear model” perspective.

  2. To say nothing of the obstacle of being an ethical engineer or scientist in a workplace where ethical practice may not be the norm (Herkert 2001).

  3. Wetmore served as program co-director in 2007 through 2010; Reifschneider served as program faculty in 2014 and in 2016; Bernstein served as a teaching assistant to the program in 2014 and as program faculty in 2016.

  4. Chatham House Rule. Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs. Accessed on 18 February 2016. Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule.

  5. One exception being Behnke (1961), who, as part of a study to compare scientists and science teacher’s views on the nature of science, explored views of relationships between society and science and scientists.

  6. The logic being that if science automatically leads to social benefits, then anything a scientist does in the name of science will undoubtedly and inevitably make the world a better place for everyone.

  7. Pielke (2007) described a similar contradiction in the way some scientists will assert that the value of their work rests in knowledge production for knowledge’s sake, yet lobby for funding because of the value of their work to policy.

  8. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, special tabulations (2014) of the 2013 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. Science and Engineering Indicators 2016.

  9. Despite common English language proficiency entry requirements for U.S. graduate programs, not all students are fluent or conversational in English. This might make some students less likely to apply for or limit the benefits from attending an English language program.

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Acknowledgments

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the university faculty, staff, guest speakers, and students who make Science Outside the Lab possible, in particular Andra Williams. We’d also like to thank the developers and faculty of the earliest Science Outside the Labs, Neal Woodbury, Dan Sarewitz, Joann Williams, Jim Allen, and Alex Smith. We thank Dr. Jessica Salerno for her insight as we refined our survey analysis. Our thanks also to the insightful comments of our three peer reviewers. Early versions of this research were presented at 2014 Gordon Research Conference, 2015 STGlobal Conference, and 2015 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This research was undertaken with support from The Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU), funded by the National Science Foundation (cooperative Agreement #0531194 and #0937591).

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Correspondence to Michael J. Bernstein.

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Bernstein, M.J., Reifschneider, K., Bennett, I. et al. Science Outside the Lab: Helping Graduate Students in Science and Engineering Understand the Complexities of Science Policy. Sci Eng Ethics 23, 861–882 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-016-9818-6

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Keywords

  • Science policy
  • Ethics education
  • Macroethics
  • Science and engineering education
  • Science
  • Policy
  • Evaluation
  • Assessment
  • Experiential learning