March 5, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 11

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    Policy students tackle the physical sciences

    By Sarah Galer
    News Office

    Kennette Benedict, Executive Director and Publisher of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, sat down with students at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies in February to give them a policy briefing on nuclear proliferation.

    During the talk, part of the 10-session Science, Technology and Policy class offered at the Harris School, Benedict walked students through the history of nuclear technology and its major issues.

    Under Benedict’s leadership, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists educates the public about the threat of nuclear weapons. The Bulletin is known for, among other things, its Doomsday Clock, which signals how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction. It is currently set at five minutes to midnight, nearing potential catastrophe.

    Benedict explained that there are an estimated 26,000 nuclear bombs in the world, enough destructive power to kill nine billion people. She admitted that number is a bit redundant, considering the world’s population now stands at close to seven billion. However, it illustrates her point well.

    “Nuclear technology is the most destructive technology ever created,” said Benedict.

    Science, Technology and Policy is an innovative noncredit, elective course created to expose public policy students to science policy. Weekly briefings are given by distinguished science experts, including Robert Rosner, Director of Argonne National Laboratory, discussing energy policy; and Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate and Fermilab Director Emeritus, briefing the students on science education.

    A signal of the Harris School’s expanding reach beyond the social sciences, the class is a collaboration between Robert Michael, the Eliakim Hasting Moore Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Harris School, and Edward “Rocky” Kolb, Chair of Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor.

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

    Kolb, the scientist on the teaching team, hopes 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,” said Kolb.

    Kolb became interested in teaching the class for just this reason: to make students aware of “the policy of science and the science of policy.”

    Christine Kolb (MPP,’09), Robert Michael’s research assistant, was integral to the class’s creation by introducing the two professors.

    “From an institutional perspective, Science, Technology and Policy reinforces the approach to policy taught at Harris,” she said, “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.”

    The class has been very popular with Harris School students, despite being a noncredit obligation.

    “Students don’t come to the University of Chicago for the weather or for the grades,” said Michael, who was the first dean of the Harris School. “They come for the knowledge.”

    Christine Kolb agreed. “In my opinion, the popular response to the class is partly due to the structure of the course as an elective, but more because it plays to the strengths of the typical Harris student. In other words, Science, Technology and Policy provides a forum for students to apply their analytical ability and interest in problem-solving to some of the most complex issues facing our society.”

    After Benedict briefed the students for an hour on nuclear proliferation, the students questioned her on science and policy issues.

    Kyle Gracey (MSESP,’09) pressed Benedict to explain how a minute could be added back onto the Doomsday Clock, to move it further away from midnight and impending disaster.

    Benedict replied swiftly: “Reduce launch readiness. We are on a hair-trigger alert.”

    She explained that the United States and Russia both have an estimated 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles on high alert, ready to be launched within 10 minutes of the order being given. The missiles would then only take 30 minutes to cross the Atlantic and cause a catastrophe.

    Nuclear technology, as a science, is well understood. Now the onus is on future policymakers, such as the students at the Harris School, to figure out how to successfully regulate that technology.

    “Our students are coming to understand that the hard sciences offer us some very hard policy issues,” Michael said.