Professor Eric Welch, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University

ASU research center’s new website helps bridge gap between science and scientists and the public they serve

By

Mark J. Scarp

Once they’ve finished their last school science course, many people only will get information about science from the news media, which likely learn about study results or discoveries through announcements by academic journals, says ASU School of Public Affairs (SPA) Professor Eric Welch. This makes science and scientists seem far away and even separated from the broader public.

As science becomes more directly relevant to our lives, it is increasingly important to improve communication with the research community. But how can this occur in the absence of a data-informed way of understanding the diversity of science opinion?

Welch, director of ASU’s Center for Science, Technology and Environmental Policy Studies (CSTEPS), said the center has solved this issue by developing a website, called SciOPS, designed to give journalists and science-interested members of the public direct access to expert opinion on research, policy and society. Its motto: “We connect people to science opinion.”

“The idea with SciOPS is to develop a new kind of communications tool from scientists to the citizens and attentive publics, such as journalists, policy makers and others,” Welch said. “We see there is a huge gap in understanding what scientists think. And, in a democratic society, it’s important to improve the flow of information from science to the public.”

Currently, the site reports results from a survey about the impact of COVID-19 on the progress of scientific research. It also presents scientists’ perspectives on federal policies and their views on government officials’ readiness to handle the crisis. Other survey questions are concerned with the health of scientists, themselves, which Welch said can affect their professional lives. SciOPS team members have also written several short policy reports using the data.

“Where there is a slowdown in activity, there is a slowdown of discovery. The engine of science is going to be negatively impacted,” said Welch of COVID-19’s effect on the research community, adding female scientists are experiencing the situation more severely than their male counterparts.

“We have one policy report we produced saying the negative impacts are higher for women, mainly because everyone is at home. And in this day, women still have higher caregiving responsibilities for children and the elderly than men. When you move scientists home, the impacts on women are substantial and will likely have career impacts on them disproportionately for several years.”

SciOPS is an ongoing and growing project, one of many CSTEPS undertakes to fulfill its purpose, which according to its website is to:

  • Do research to understand of the processes, institutions, organizations and individual incentives and motivations that affect the development and production of science
  • Research the role of science and technology in advancing public goods and services
  • Develop and advance policy recommendations that improve how science is conducted to achieve important social and environmental outcomes
  • Integrate students and early career scholars in all aspects of the research.

Read on to learn more about CSTEPS, part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, and its director, Eric Welch:

Q. Tell a little about yourself and where you’ve lived.

A.  I would say the short answer is that I am from the Seattle area. That’s where I lived on and off until I was in my 20s. The longer answer is that I have lived and gone to school in many places over my life. In the United States, I have lived in Montana, Tennessee, Washington, New York, Illinois, Oregon and now Arizona. Internationally, I have lived and worked or gone to school in Sweden, Austria, France, China and Japan at different times in my life. Those experiences have exposed me to diverse ways of thinking and living, and are an important part of what I bring to my scholarship and profession.

Q.  What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you are now in?

A.  I have been interested science and technology policy for a long time.  During my master’s degree studies in the 1990s, I focused on Japanese science and technology policy at a time when there was substantial attention on issues of national industrial competitiveness. One of my professors at that time, Dr. Pete Suttmeier, recommended that I continue my work in the area and that Syracuse University would be a good place to inquire to study a PhD. At that time, Syracuse’s Maxwell School had a Center for Technology and Information Policy (CTIP). I had not considered a degree in public administration before that, but joined CTIP a year later to start my doctoral studies.

Q.  What is it about ASU that made it where you wanted to take your career?

A.  The ASU leadership is a strong proponent of the broad mission of public higher education, and core values of teaching, research and service. But it also encourages an “outside the box” approach to the academy. ASU has encouraged me to think broadly about my field and my research, and to pursue new ideas and initiatives that break down barriers, rethink accepted practices and build new intellectual connections.

Q.  What’s your proudest academic or professional accomplishment to date?

A.  I would say that I am most proud when my doctoral students succeed. That happens when they graduate after long and challenging studies and start their careers at a university, a research institute or another organization where they can use their knowledge and skills.

Q.  What fires you up about your research? How do you hope your research will impact society?

A.   I get excited about the research process – identifying questions that need answering, collaborating with colleagues, designing a project to collect data to answer the question and gaining new insights into social phenomena. Increasingly I am excited about bringing academic research tools and approaches to a much broader set of actors outside of academia.

I don’t think it is wise to hope research will impact society. Impact takes a great deal of effort, and needs to be present at all stages of the research process all the way from identifying research questions to the interpretation and dissemination of results. I hope one of my most recent initiatives, SciOPS, is destined to engage different publics on issues of science using social science research tools and skills.

Q.  What’s something you learned from your research that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A.  One of my most recent studies was about the regulation of science. I am interested in how global, national and local rules, regulations and procedures affect the conduct of science. In the course of the study, as I was collecting interview and survey data, I became more aware of the increase in the diversity of needs and services to undertake big data academic science. Technical skills, regulatory requirements, equipment, data access, curation and management needs, legal and ethical expertise, editing, marketing and communication are all components that university principal investigators, labs, teams and consortia require to carry out research. In some cases, the proliferation of needs is resolved through a highly complex set of contracts, which increases the transactional nature of science. In other cases, science communities are starting to self-organize in ways that bring resources together to accelerate research, but also develop governance mechanisms that minimize transactions. These “open communities” deserve greater research attention to understand how they are established and organized, and the conditions under which they are most likely to succeed.

Q.  Which professor(s) – current colleagues or your own teachers – taught you the most important lessons? What were those lessons?

A.  My PhD adviser was Dr. Stuart Bretschneider, who is now on faculty in our school (SPA). Stu taught me the value of mentorship and the importance of investing as a faculty member in developing and encouraging the unique qualities of each student.

Q.  If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A.  Very hard to answer. If I had $40 million, I would design an initiative to improve developing country access to big data resources and capacity for research in the global south.