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The Intersection of Science and Policy

August 30, 2013

For this year’s inaugural talk of the Duke/UNC Science Policy Speaker Series, the Science Policy Advocacy Group welcomed John Hardin, PhD, Executive Director of the North Carolina Board of Science & Technology (BST).  We welcomed a mixed audience that included life scientists, political scientists, undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty as Dr. Hardin gave an informative and interesting talk on the intersection of science and policy from the perspective of state government.    

Dr. Hardin earned his BS in economics from Baylor University and holds an MA and PhD in political science from UNC-Chapel Hill.  He serves as an adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science at Carolina.

When Dr. John Hardin opened his talk with a picture of a bride “science” in a lab coat and groom “politics” in a business suit, the audience laughed audibly.  Then we noticed the caption “Can this marriage be saved?”  I looked around to see a number of heads nodding in agreement to the question that Dr. Hardin posed. 

Next, he showed a cartoon illustrating the assessment of the impact of climate change from the perspective of a scientist versus a politician.  As I am sure you guessed, the scientists were shown reviewing data while the politicians were shown reviewing opinion polls and voting intentions surveys.  Dr. Hardin challenged the audience to think about the often conflicting difference in perspectives of scientists and politicians.  He presented two definitions:

Science (scientia―knowledge)

    1. Systematic knowledge/facts/truths (outcome) of the physical or material world gained through systematic observation and experimentation (process)
  • Ideally, science is impersonal, objective, and value-free

Politics (polis―city/state; the affairs thereof)

    1. Disputes (process) over claims to the authority to decide what is, what’s right, and what works (outcomes) in an organization/locale
    2. The authoritative allocation  (process) of values (outcomes/policies)

I immediately recalled the bride and groom as Dr. Hardin reminded us of the importance of a relationship that is made up of two apparently opposing viewpoints.  Each side is motivated by different “inputs”.   The National Science Foundation compared attitudes of the general public and scientists on science and technology issues, and the data suggests that the general public and scientists do not share perspectives on a number of issues, such as evolution and climate change. While scientists value the work and conclusions of other scientists, lawmakers value the interests and opinions of their constituents, often leaving the two groups at odds.

The greatest support for the sciences comes from the federal government, therefore most science policy is federal as well.  However, science policy exists on state and local levels, too.  Dr. Hardin described the history of science policy as it pertains to the state of North Carolina.  First, he laid out a key point.  “When states focus on science and technology policy, it tends to not be science for science’s sake, but science for economic development,” Dr. Hardin explained. 

Two major NC legislative actions in the late 50s and early 60s were the creation of Research Triangle Park (RTP) and the BST—developed to boost the North Carolina economy.  BST acts through many avenues to “improve the economic well being and quality of life of all North Carolinians through advancing science, technology, and innovation.”  RTP provides a central location for science and technology companies. 

While RTP and the BST have functioned to boost the NC economy, Dr. Hardin believes that there is more work to do.  Remember the marriage which needs to be saved? 

It was apparent that one avenue to improving the relationship between science and politics is to foster relationships between scientists and politicians.  Is this where science policy advocates step in?  One UNC faculty member commented during the Q&A period that, even with extensive experience in advocating on a federal level, they were still clueless about how to advocate on a state level.   Dr. Hardin responded that it was a tough question to address and reminded the audience that economic development has to be central to the conversation.   

Addressing interest in science policy careers, Dr. Hardin pointed graduate students to AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows program. 

All in all, we had a great time at the talk and we learned a lot.  

Thank you to Dr. John Hardin for sharing his time and knowledge.


Stephani Page, SPAG secretary