“Policymaking is a form of narrative or storytelling; it tells us something about how the world is and how it ought to be,” said Saul Halfon, associate professor of science, technology, and society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, as he made his opening remarks at the inaugural Policy, Technology, and Society Conversation and Networking Seminar at Virginia Tech, sponsored by the Policy Strategic Growth Area on March 4.

Halfon, along with Anne Khademian, Presidential Fellow and former director of the School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, offered brief comments to an audience of 19 faculty from five colleges, seven departments, and several other units. Their remarks launched an engaged discussion around technology and policy and their interplay with society. 

“Technology is seen as the provenance of experts and is a domain of social power,” Halfon said. He went on to explain that technology experts and policymakers often see educating an “uninformed” public as a key part of garnering support for policies they are promoting. Many find it difficult, however, to bring together people on opposing sides of controversial issues, such as climate change or gun control, with just data and scientific evidence. According to Halfon, science, religion, and cultural traditions help people define how the world is. What people believe is based not only on their values but also on the audiences and institutions they trust to give them information.

“And we tend to trust institutions that align with our values, our histories, experiences, and social networks,” Halfon noted. In his view, policymakers and political leaders are more likely to be successful at bridging divisive issues through mutual learning and shared experiences that help citizens understand one another’s values rather than by trying to primarily convince people through facts and evidence.   

Halfon’s remarks provided a perfect segue for Khademian, who spoke about generosity related to the role of universities and community engagement. Drawing on the recent work of Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author of "Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University," Khademian explained the generosity of “listening and thinking” and the importance of understanding what others have to say.

According to Khademian, “policy is an integral part of complex decision making. When one looks at the grand challenges that many universities are now tackling, such as health care or the opioid epidemic, one of the difficulties is learning how to work collaboratively to make complex decisions.”

She encouraged the group to think about the role of policy in helping to identify what they want to study and how to do it in a collaborative, interdisciplinary way. “There is tremendous opportunity to use the lens of policy and enactment, to use our strengths as students of policy to help us think about the future of the university and the many challenges we face.”

A lively discussion by event participants followed, focused primarily on the importance of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration in policy work. Participants raised issues about the impact of faculty incentives and rank on collaborative work as well as the importance of training in team science and having structures and time built in for working together across disciplines.

“One size does not fit all,” said Karen Hult, an event participant and chair of the Department of Political Science. “Not everyone in a department has to do this work, but some do. And we need to think about how to make this happen.”  

For more information on the Policy Strategic Growth Area and the next policy, technology, and society event, On Water, scheduled on March 28, visit www.isce.vt.edu/policysga/events.html.