Panel Discusses the Need for Evidence-Based Policy

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The Science Policy Group at UCI, with a grant from the Union of Concerned Scientists, hosted a public forum last Thursday, Jan. 18, bringing together students, professors, scientists and policymakers to discuss local and national issues in environmental, health and STEM fields.

“We bridge the gap between science, between mathematics and the realm of policymaking by actually looking at data that’s collected either by the government, by outside resources… to actually design effective programs that help people in their average lives,” said Richard Prince, president of the Science Policy Group, which started in 2015.

Thursday’s event was split into four panels on the topics of evidence-based policymaking, renewable energy and climate change, biomedicine and public health policy and STEM education.

UCI political science professor Davin Phoenix, UCI health sciences professor Robert Phalen and UCI law professor and Democratic congressional candidate for California’s 45th district David Min discussed how the nation can move toward more evidence-based policymaking. All agreed that increased communication between scientists, policymakers and the public is most beneficial.

“Figure out who you want to talk to and then figure out what the access points are there,” said Min, addressing the scientists in the room.

“You need to keep your work simple,” continued Min. “[Policymakers] are very inundated with information… you have to boil your research down into something that is simple to understand and can be presented in a binary matter.”

Phoenix urged scientists to employ more self-promotional methods to get their research out there and Phalen gave advice on how to better connect with the public.

“I don’t think you can sell, convince, push or change minds on a subject because you think you’re smarter than the public,” said Phalen. “I think the bottom line is you have to be worthy of being listened to. Keep everything simple. You have to learn to communicate… Be the favorite aunt or uncle in the family. Be the grandparent advising your grandkids. That sort of thing the public understands. A stranger coming to say, ‘Okay I’m going to tell you where you’re wrong and I’m right and I’m going to tell you what to believe,’ it doesn’t work.”

The next set of panelists, UCI biology professor Kathleen Treseder, scientist and associate manager for UCI’s Advanced Power and Energy Program Brian Tarroja and Democratic congressional candidate for California’s 39th district Sam Jammal, talked about environmental issues. All agreed offshore oil drilling has more cons than pros with Tarroja calling it “a step in the wrong direction.”

The panelists also considered the effects of California’s implementation of zero emission vehicles.

“To our best knowledge, the best way to mitigate climate change is simply to reduce our use of fossil fuels and that means switching to renewable energies and electric vehicles,” said Treseder. “It’s especially useful in the U.S. because we drive so much. The average American car driver drives the equivalent of a full circumference of the earth every year and that release a lot of [carbon dioxide].”

Tarroja said increased use of alternative fuel vehicles is great, but “the other infrastructures that produce that fuel has to evolve in tandem,” meaning if a person plugs in their car at home, systems have to be in place to ensure that the electricity from the house actually originates from a renewable energy source.

Jammal added that the cost of electric vehicles and accessibility of charging stations also needs to be addressed.

The third panel included Democratic congressional candidates Hans Keirstead, for California’s 48th district, and Mai Khanh Tran, for the 39th district, as well as UCI neurobiology professor Christie Fowler. They first addressed issues surrounding the tobacco industry.

“Every year there’s almost 500,000 thousand deaths due to tobacco use,” said Tran who sought to combat this with more science-based policy and data.

“The cigarette companies are always ahead of us… The good thing about tobacco cigarettes is that it’s been declining… but now we have e-cigarettes,” said Fowler.

The panelists also all agreed that a universal health care system would benefit the U.S. but policymakers needed to be smart.

“[Single-payer healthcare systems] is incredible in that you have a level playing field so everyone has access to healthcare… but the quality of care is generally less than the top-tier quality care in the U.S.,” said Kierstead. Focusing on the country’s priorities early on – coverage, cost and quality – is important to establishing a successful healthcare system.

The final panel included Michael Kotick, Democratic congressional candidate for California’s 48th district, Eddie Tabata, executive director of Science@OC and Rossella Santagata, UCI education professor, who addressed the need for increased STEM education in K-12 schools.

“Passion drives education,” said Kotick, who stressed the importance of exposing kids to the possibilities of STEM as early as possible so they have the opportunity to discover that passion. “Someone’s passion for learning and thirst for knowledge is fundamentally crucial in how well and how fast [students] learn.”

Santagata stressed the importance of recruiting, training and retaining teachers.

Tabata brought up the fact that California is very close to adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which aims to increase scientific interest in students. He also said this is important in effectively preparing the future workforce in what was deemed the point of the night.

“[Companies] need students who are flexible-thinking, able to do argumentative work and stand on their own, but also to be able to transfer their skills across disciplines,” said Tabata. “Are we teaching those skills in education? Not necessarily… [Adopting the NGSS] is a window of opportunity for school districts here in California to change the way they do science education.”

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