By Sarah Galer
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

We, as political scientists, haven’t taken advantage of the complementarity with physical science”
—Robert Michael
Dean of the Harris School

Christine Kolb focuses on urban policy and public resource allocation at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. And although her career interests lie in urban issues, the second-year graduate student’s childhood made her a firm believer in the importance of introducing policy students to science issues.

“I grew up with dinner conversations about inadequate federal funding of science or how policymakers were not aware of what science is, what it accomplishes, and why it’s important,” she says, referring to her father, Edward “Rocky” Kolb, the Chair of Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor. “There is a chasm between the policy that regulates and funds science, and the process of science—what science must do.”

Christine’s passion for science and policy piqued the curiosity of Robert Michael, the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Harris School, for whom she is a teaching assistant. An idea started to germinate between them for a class that would combine the two disciplines, which had never been explored at the Harris School.

The result was a 10-week offering called Science, Technology, and Policy—an innovative, non-credit, elective created to expose public policy students to science policy.

“Rocky decided that he wanted students in policy to know more science, and I have 125 students of policy,” explains Michael. “It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out that all we had to do is get the two of them together.”

Genesis of the Class

When Kolb first spoke with Michael, he lamented how woefully little policy staffers on Capitol Hill knew about science and how he wished that would change.

“We, as political scientists, haven’t taken advantage of the complementarity with physical science,” says Michael, founding Dean of the Harris School. “Now that we are maturing, it is appropriate for our school to make ties with the physical sciences.”

Kolb was one of the distinguished science experts to present weekly briefings at the Winter Quarter class. Other speakers included Kennette Benedict, Executive Director and Publisher of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who discussed nuclear proliferation; Robert Rosner, Director of Argonne National Laboratory, who discussed energy policy; and Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate and Fermilab Director Emeritus, who briefed the students on science education.

“What a great idea to have a class that would address this, especially because the leadership of the University has a science background, with a mathematician (President Robert Zimmer) and a physicist (Provost Thomas Rosenbaum),” Christine Kolb says.

And even though it was a noncredit obligation, the class was very popular with students.

“Students don’t come to the University of Chicago for the weather or for the grades,” says Michael. “They come for the knowledge.”

‘How the other half lives’

Kolb, as the scientist on the teaching team, hopes the success of the class will lead to the creation of a similar one for physical science students to learn about public policy.

“It is important to know a little about how the other half lives,” he says.

He became interested in teaching the class for just this reason: to make students aware, as he succinctly put it, of “the policy of science and the science of policy.”

The class signals the Harris School’s expanding reach beyond the social sciences, all while remaining grounded in the policy tools that the Harris School teaches all of its students.

“From an institutional perspective, Science, Technology, and Policy reinforces the approach to policy taught at Harris,” says Christine Kolb. However, “in order to fully understand policy you need to know about the economy, and if innovation from science and technology drives 50 percent of our economy, we need to know about those fields.”

Originally published on March 30, 2009.