Last week, we watched the movie Westworld (1973) as a DukeEngage cohort. During our discussion of the movie, a lot of us said that the plot seemed like something we were used to – a story about human-made technology taking over humans. Although this is a narrative that we have grown up with and seen often (Jurassic Park, Ex Machina, even WALL-E), the movie was revolutionary in 1973. Watching the film has made me reflect on how science and technology are constantly evolving, how public policy addresses those changes, and how these dynamics impact science policy. In the context of technology, Westworld may seem outdated to our cohort because we’re used to the ideas of voice assistants like Siri and Alexa, self-driving cars, and other machine learning technologies. For policy, political and cultural changes are always affecting which policies are made and which are not. Science is always changing, and so are policies.
Throughout my internship at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, I’ve heard my supervisors say that there are no silver bullets in public policy. Rather, implementable policies occur in steps over time, per social, political, and economic contexts. This is partially because one policy cannot solve every problem that exists, and partially because contexts are always changing. When I’m doing research on projects for Margolis, sometimes health care studies conducted just a year ago are out of date due to policy changes and health care innovations. With so many changes in health care always happening, and a politically-divided federal government that infamously gets little done, it can be frustrating seeing all the work that goes into policymaking and experiencing few tangible results.
This is not to say that public policy is futile – we need inclusive, equitable, and implementable policies that dignify people and foster community. There is no perfect policy that will solve every problem in the world, but settling for just “thoughts and prayers” will not solve gun violence, health care inequity, human rights violations at the border, climate change, sexual harassment/assault, wealth inequality, or any other problem. I think that we need to move away from the idea that policymaking is dichotomous, in that we either fix everything or give up trying. However, finding a middle ground where people can sustainably advocate for policy over time is a taxing effort, and it places disproportionate burdens on people who are most immediately affected by public policies.
What does this mean for science policy? I believe that this calls for even stronger research and communication between scientists and policymakers. Value is more than fulfilling everything that you initially set out to accomplish. There is value in policy reform progress, in understanding and representing people, and in knowing what policies do not work. This summer with DukeEngage and the Margolis Center has taught me that interdisciplinary advocacy is a way to productively confront a world that is always changing and becoming more complex. In the future, I hope to continue working on policies that are conscientious of science and uplift people.