Student group develops grassroots effort to create science policy dialogue

What began as a small group of University of Washington students organizing a public forum on a controversial science policy question has since grown into an organization that is fostering dialogue between scientists, the public, and political leaders. Their project has created a forum for discussion of science, ethics, and public policy, and their success holds lessons for other students interested in organizing similar grassroots groups.

The group, the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP), put on its first major public discussion in 2004, bringing together several national experts and hundreds of Seattle-area participants to talk about the science and policy of stem cell research.

"The success of the first forum for the public made us realize there was a thirst among both scientists and the public to discuss the implications of science for society," said Jessica Chubak, a UW graduate student in epidemiology and one of FOSEP's directors.

That's when the students involved in FOSEP decided to formalize the organization, and make it a continuous, sustainable effort to increase the dialogue on science and public policy. More than a year later, FOSEP has held many other events, recruited new members from around the university, and plans to continue addressing important topics in the public sphere. Chubak will give a presentation, discussing how other student groups can have similar outcomes, on Friday, Feb. 17, at the 2006 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis.

The leaders of FOSEP see the organization as contributing to the university and the community in many different ways by encouraging students to cross disciplinary and institutional boundaries in their discussions, and preparing them to become the science and policy leaders of the future. The group also fosters the development of "scientist-citizens," who understand the role of knowledge from science and other realms in creating public policy. In addition, the group's forums bring science and ethics experts together with policymakers and the public, to help promote informed policy decisions.

"We wanted to take FOSEP from a group that hosts a couple of events per year to a place where ideas can really ferment," explained Thomas Robey, a graduate student in the Medical Scientist Training Program at the UW, and a fellow FOSEP director. "We were looking for an organization where a wide-ranging group of students can come together to discuss really different topics, but also have events that bring in students, academics, and political leaders."

"People at a previous AAAS meeting were talking about a dialogue on science and ethics, but nobody was talking about how to do it," Chubak added. "Hopefully, explaining how FOSEP was able to build a dialogue will help other student groups interested in similar efforts."

FOSEP's organizers attribute its success to the hard work and enthusiasm among its members, the group's ability to craft a well-defined mission for itself, and also to the strong institutional support they have received from the UW Office of Research. The organization has since received support from many other departments and schools around the University of Washington. Their travel to the AAAS conference in St. Louis was funded by the UW Graduate School's Fund for Excellence and Innovation, the Office of Research, and a travel grant from the AAAS.

In the future, the group plans to hold small group meetings and large-scale public forums on other issues that bring together science and public policy, such as the controversy over evolution theory and the concept of intelligent design. The key for FOSEP is covering issues of interest to the public and policymakers, rather than just ethical questions about individual research projects.

"Research ethics are very important, but FOSEP fills a different need we look at bigger-picture issues, or what some people call macro-level ethics," Robey said. "Typically, research ethics doesn't matter as much to the folks on Capitol Hill. They want to know what sort of research we should be doing, and how we should be going about it."

Robey and Chubak have organized a AAAS symposium on science and policy, "Scientists, the Public, and Policy-makers in Dialogue: Principles and Applications." Chubak's presentation on FOSEP will be part of that symposium, which will be held from 10:30 a.m. to noon on Friday, Feb. 17, at the AAAS meeting.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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