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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / August 2018 / Bringing Science into Policy

Bringing Science into Policy

Career Story by Katrina Korfmacher, PhD, Associate Professor for Environmental Medicine and URBEST Policy Leader

I grew up thinking I wanted to be a scientist and entered college interested in “genetic engineering” -having absolutely no idea what that was.  My first environmental studies class in college got me hooked on the idea of using science to solve imminent social problems, and I refocused on ecology and geology.

One night my Sophomore year, I was sitting around in a lodge on top of a mountain in New Hampshire with a bunch of other kids listening to a researcher talk about his work on acid rain. “I am 90% sure acid rain is killing the red spruce,” he said, “but there is no way in hell you’d get me to say that publicly.”  I was shocked. Here was a national expert on acid rain who had the answer the Bush administration said they were waiting for before agreeing to curb sulfur emissions…and he was refusing to share that knowledge! After discussion and reflection, I realized this was because he knew that in a court of law, public opinion, or scientific debate, 90% wasn’t good enough – it would ruin his credibility and career to share his provisional knowledge. That’s when I decided I didn’t want to be a scientist, I wanted to figure out how to change policy processes to make better use of scientific knowledge. Also I wanted to prepare undergraduates in all disciplines to work together to solve environmental problems.

So, I went to graduate school intending to build multidisciplinary competencies – both to be able to work at the bridge between science and policy and to be able to mentor future students to do so.  I got to put those skills into practice sooner than I thought. I did my doctorate at the Duke Marine Lab, so all the other graduate students were marine scientists. Once in a while they would slip into my office, close the door, and say, “hey, I don’t want to be a researcher – I want to do policy stuff like you. How do I do that?”  This was the perfect excuse to procrastinate writing my dissertation – helping them figure that out was what I really wanted to do!

I ended up with a master’s in water quality management, supervised by an engineer who used decision theory to inform model selection.  My doctoral research was supervised by a cultural anthropologist and involved evaluating an ecosystem management program.  I often describe my dissertation as “explaining all the reasons the real world doesn’t work rationally the way my master’s thesis said it should.” When I graduated I got a job teaching interdisciplinary environmental studies at a small liberal arts college, just like I planned. I had lots of fun teaching courses that integrated science and policy, designing new curriculum to help students integrate disciplines, mentoring other faculty in service learning, and engaging students in local problem solving. This was exactly what I had trained myself to do! 

But then, my husband got a job at RIT and we moved to Rochester, where there were no interdisciplinary undergraduate environmental policy teaching positions. A friend told me that the environmental health program at URMC was doing some “interesting local environmental stuff.”  Indeed they were – it turns out the NIEHS funding for our Environmental Health Sciences Center requires an outreach program.  I was hired part-time to lead community environmental health outreach in the community.  I soon got drawn into the local efforts to prevent lead poisoning, and have spent the last 17 years supporting the local lead coalition, helping design and pass local policy, evaluating its impacts, and sharing this model. 

I am still surprised nearly every day to find myself going into a hospital to work, but really most of my work, colleagues, and products are in the community. This was NOT what I ever expected to do! 

But my particular position and the kinds of work I’ve been able to create within it have let me engage actively in bringing science into community problem solving and policy. Right now I am working on a book called “Bridges and Silos.”  It’s about environmental justice in urban communities, and how local partnerships have formed in many places to reconnect the silos of environment and health, academia/communities/government, and federal/state/local agencies. My favorite parts are how creative the three different groups I talk about were in getting and using the science they needed to inform local systems change. 

Join me Friday August 31 at noon in the Louise Slaughter Conference Room (1-9555) to learn more about my career path and also to discuss creating a student-led Science Policy Course for 2019. I need your help! Come eat some pizza.

Global Administrator | 8/6/2018

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