I attended the annual SENCER—Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities--Summer Institute.
This was my second Summer Instiute-- I wrote home about my experience last yr too.
Basically, the raison d'etre of this super cool organization is to obliterate the “self-measurement paradox”: the bizarre and scandalous failure of professions that traffic in scientific knowledge to use science's signature methods of producing knowledge to assess and refine their own craft norms.
(In what one might have suspected was clever self-parody but for the earnest intelligence with which the information was presented and the seriousness with which it was received, the Institute opened with a great 15-minute session on the latest data on effective notetaking strategies--so that we could be sure to maximize retention of all the insights to be imparted in the ensuing lectures, seminars, and workshops.)
Its members are constantly creating, testing, tweaking, and sharing their experiences with teaching techniques (grading ones too) and tools for empirically assessing them.
A highlight at this yr’s Institute was a status report from a team at West Point, which is in its third year in a project to “SENCERize” its curriculum.
But lately SENCER has been broadening out.
It has already made a foray into popular science culture: we heard from KQED's Sue Ellen McCann and Andrea Aust about that flagship PBS station's use of empirical methods to make their programs as engaging and accessible to as large and diverse an audience as possible.
And this year, one of the major themes was how to advance empirical understanding of the processes by which scientific knowledge is recognized and given proper effect in public decisionmaking.
That’s a major interest of mine, of course. Indeed, what made me so excited about the program last year was the prospect of using the “SENCER model” (which itself involves creating models for adaptation and use by others) to bridge the the unconscionable gap between the practices of science and science-informed policymaking, on the one hand, and the science of science communication, on the other.
So I was really psyched to participate this year in various Institute programs dedicated to focusing SENCER membrers’ attention on this objective.
There were various sessions relating, essentially, to the need for developing an "evidence based" politics in support of evidence-based policymaing.
I played a lead role in three.
In one, I oversaw participants’ engagement with a pair of “vaccine risk case studies” (materials here).
Case study number 1 featured the introduction of the HPV vaccine into the U.S. The materials were designed to enable participants to assess who knew what about what—including other relevant actors’ intentions—as of late 2005.
Merck, manufacturer of the HPV vaccine Garadosil, was then planning to apply for fast-track FDA approval a girls-only HPV shot.
It was also seeking the assistance of the womens’ groups to organize a nationwide press for adoption of state legislation mandating vaccination (of girls) as a condition of middle school enrollment.
Women’s health advocates were trying to figure out whether to accept Merck’s proposal.
Religious and social groups had signaled that they were not opposed to approval of the vaccine but would oppose mandatory vaccination legislation.
At least some public health officials were worried that this process—geared, they thought, to enabling Merck to create a dominant market position for Gardasil before GlaxoSmithKline obtained approval for its rival HPV vassine—was likely to enmesh the HPV vaccine in toxic political controversy.
But what were thos nervous Nellies & Nigels so concerned about?
Just a few years earlier, the CDC had recommended that the the HBV vaccine—for hepatitis-b, also a sexually transmitted disese—be included as a universal childhood vaccination, and nearly all the states had added it to their mandatory school-enrollment schedules without fuss.
In addition, there was survey evidence showing that parents would happily accept the HBV vaccine for their daughters if that’s what their pediatricians recommended.
But sure enough, the FDA's approval of Gardosil for girls only, followed by the CDC's recommendation that the vaccined be added to the universal vaccination schedule and then by the Merck-sponsored legislative campaign ignited a polarizing firestorm of cultural controvesy. Not only did only 1 state enact an HPV mandate (that would be Virginia, in excange for Merck's promise to build a huge manufacturing plant there; maybe they gave the Governor a Rolex too?), but to this day vaccination rates remains anemic (not only for girls but for boys, too; the vaccine was approved for them just 3 yrs approval for girls) b/c of continuing ambivalence about the shot's safety and efficacy.
Could the relevant actors have reasonably anticipated the controversy that unfolded over 2007-2010? Whose responsibility was it to try to get more info—and who was supposed to do what with it?
Case study 2 involved childhood vaccinations.
The materials were aimed at assessing whether the relevant players—here, government public health agencies, advocacy groups, medical professional associations, philanthropic groups, and the news media—are responding appropriately now to anxiety over public “vaccine hesitancy” in a manner that takes account of the lessons to be learned from the HPV disaster.
The discussion was great -- I was really impressed by how readily the participants saw the complexity of the issues (aversion to recognition of complexity is actually the root of all social dysfunction, in my view; that's such a simple & obvious point, why argue it?)
My second session was a keynote talk (slides here) on the “Science Communication Measurement Problem.” I shared with the audience data showing that climate-science communication is hobbled by the failure of those engaged in it to disentangle -- both for purposes of measurement and for purposes of practical action -- people's knowledge from their expression of their cultural identities.
Unsurprisingly, people ooo'ed & ahhhh'ed when I displayed my sexy item response curves!
Finally, there was a session in the nature of a seminar or group discussion about how to leverage to the political realm insights that science educators. formal and informal, have acquired about promoting public engagement with controversial science issues.
Science teachers, museum directors, and extension professionals, among others, all shared their experiences with the phenomenon of knowledge-identity “entanglement”--and techniques they've used to dissolve it.
We came away with a rich set of conjecture—and a shared sense of resolve to test them with structured, empirical research programs.
Beyond that, we had nothing in common--no disciplinary or insitutional affiliations, no set of cultural commitments, no cause.
Believe it or not, that's why I find SENCER so inspiring.
The talented and passionate people who are part of SENCER, I've learned, care about only one thing: using science to dispel any obstacle to the acquisition of scientific knowledge by free and reasoning individuals--students, professionals, educators, citizens--to use as they see fit.
The spirit of SENCER is a monument to the affinity of science and liberal values.