If you were to hear the words safety, security, and safeguards, you might automatically assume they are interconnected concepts all aimed at reducing risks associated with a common threat.

This is not the case when it comes to nuclear science and policy, according to Sonja Schmid, an associate professor of science, technology, and society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and one of several presenters at the Policy Strategic Growth Area (SGA) Spring Research Forum held recently on the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus.  

“Nuclear energy has great potential as a source of energy, but it also poses grave concerns,” Schmid said. These concerns center on issues of safety during a nuclear accident, security due to terrorists or nonstate actors who might steal nuclear materials, and safeguards needed to monitor or prevent the development of nuclear weapons.

Schmid described efforts underway to integrate safety, security, and safeguards through development of a “nuclear culture” that takes into account the ways different countries handle nuclear risks and approach international standards and norms for the management of nuclear energy.

Schmid is a member of one of three research and four planning teams that presented their work to an audience of 40 faculty representing seven colleges and 19 departments at the forum. The event provided the interdisciplinary teams, all supported by the Policy SGA to engage in research and curricular activities, with the opportunity to showcase their recent progress and discuss future directions for policy research at Virginia Tech.

The projects “demonstrate and extend the scope, depth, and visibility of the university’s research in critical policy areas,” said David Orden, a professor with the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment and co-chair of the Policy SGA research committee.

A second project, led by Angela Scarpa, associate professor of psychology in the College of Science, is developing technology-based strategies and collaborating with policymakers, including Virginia House of Delegates District 12 representative Chris Hurst, to increase access to critical services for autism spectrum disorder in underserved rural communities. Scarpa and colleagues will incorporate findings from focus groups as they collaborate with state, regional, and local policymakers to coordinate and implement services, including telehealth therapy and use of a mobile autism clinic, for families in Galax and Smyth and Wythe counties.

The third project, led by Ron Meyers, assistant research professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Patrick Miller, professor of landscape architecture in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, has brought together a diverse group of faculty to develop innovative strategies to improve the process of identifying, selecting, and gaining support for renewable energy sites, such as placing windmills and solar panels. Due to the complex nature of the decision-making and numerous stakeholders in this arena, the group is developing a range of partnerships across municipalities, regional planning groups, and industry.

As part of their project, Meyers and colleagues have developed and taught an interdisciplinary policy course for undergraduate students, written a book chapter together, developed a seminar series, and held a symposium bringing together academic and industry stakeholders to discuss future opportunities for collaboration.

Following the presentation of the policy projects, lively discussions took place when four planning groups described their work. One team, led by Marc J. Stern, professor of forest resources and environmental conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, is focusing on interventions for civilizing public discourse in environmental policy disputes.

“We implemented an online survey that exposed people at opposite ends of the political spectrum to different combinations of our interventions to assess how they process subsequent messages about environmental policy,” said Stern.

Stern and colleagues anticipate the results will reveal specific techniques they can use to help people more calmly and rationally evaluate messages that would normally provoke a hostile or defensive response, thus leaving them more open to considering opposing points of view.

Other planning projects presented included "Sharing Stories: Understanding Place, Identity, and Narrative for Policy Change," led by Katrina Powell, a professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, which focused on community activities and interviews to better understand how stories can inform refugee and migrant policies; "Ethical Decision Making Under Ambiguity," led by Thomas Rowe, a postdoctoral associate in philosophy, which is studying how individuals make decisions on behalf of others under conditions of risk and ambiguity; and "Policy for Active Aging: WHO’s Global Age Friendly Initiative, led by Eunju Hwang," an assistant professor in apparel, housing, and resource management in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, which is laying groundwork for evaluating age-friendly initiative policy-related outcomes in local communities.      

The afternoon concluded with a panel discussion on future directions for policy research at the university, moderated by Douglas Lind, professor and chair of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Panel participants included Don Taylor, vice provost for learning systems innovation and effectiveness; Anand Desai, head of Evaluation and Assessment Capability, Office of Integrative Activities, National Science Foundation and professor of public policy at Ohio State University; and Anne Khademian, Presidential Fellow at Virginia Tech.

Taylor, as a key leader of Virginia Tech Destination Areas (DAs) and Strategic Growth Areas (SGAs), outlined how his office is poised to support the work of the Policy SGA, along with its projects. He sees the Policy SGA playing a cross-cutting role at the university, integrating multiple disciplines and departments and providing leadership in facilitating innovative policy work at Virginia Tech.

As an external observer, Desai remarked on the “breadth and depth of the Virginia Tech commitment to the DAs and SGAs.” He noted the uniqueness of seeing “the engagement of so many junior faculty in the interdisciplinary initiatives,” given frequent pressures they are under to focus solely on their own research and scholarship within their home departments.

Desai stressed the importance of continuing to develop interdisciplinary expertise to increase success in obtaining external funding from organizations, such as the National Science Foundation.

As the final panelist and co-chair of the Policy SGA, Anne Khademian underscored the “value-added” benefits of the Policy SGA, emphasizing policy as being fundamentally about complex decision-making, serving as a hub and creative incubator for policy-related research and scholarship across Virginia Tech, and actively engaging with communities outside the university.

For more information on the Policy Strategic Growth Area or the abstracts of the forum presentations (found under the Events tab), visit https://isce.vt.edu/policysga.html.  

Written by Yancey Crawford