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November 7, 2003

Institute on science, society gains momentum in second year

by Anne Krapfl
The speed at which scientists introduce new ideas and technologies is outpacing social scientists' ability to measure their impact. Such is the impetus behind Iowa State's new Institute of Science and Society, believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

Faculty affiliates of the institute, representing -- but not limited to -- the life, physical and social sciences, will study the impact of science on society. They also will observe the effects of society, including public perception, on the content and speed of further developments in the sciences.

An example relevant in a rural state like Iowa is the effect on the citizenry of state and local government going online with more and more of its programs and services. How many non-wired families are being squeezed out of active citizenship? Where are they? What are their options?

Officially approved in June by the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, the institute has entered its second year this fall. Its funders are the President's Office (enhancement funding that targets new faculty positions) and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS). Its co-directors, Yong Lee, political science, and Peter Orazem, economics, report to the LAS dean. Officials in the College of Agriculture and Plant Sciences Institute provide advice as well.

So far, about 95 faculty members from about 20 departments have expressed interest in being affiliates of the institute. Much of Orazem and Lee's work has been in lowering the institutional barriers and helping research teams emerge from the mix.

"The scale of interdisciplinary work already being done at Iowa State is unique, but even so, departments are insular," Orazem said. "Our job is to lead the process, to do some pushing.

"Whatever you want to call it, greasing the wheels, brokering marriages, our job is putting people together," he said.

So far, 13 research teams have been assembled under four broad topics:
  • Science and technology policy
  • Impacts of technology
  • Media and e-government
  • Science, ethics and religion
The next step is for each of the teams to determine its research pursuits.

"It's amazing what happens when you give people a chance to advertise what they're working on. People listen and suggest offshoot projects and other ideas to pursue," Orazem said. "This is one way we can make this a smaller university."

Faculty lines
The institute's $200,000 in central enhancement funding, supplemented by $135,000 from LAS, created four new faculty lines in LAS this fall. The new faculty members and their research interests are:
  • Mo Xio, economics, transmission of information from producers to consumers
  • Doug Gentile, psychology, effects of violence in the media
  • Clark Wolf, philosophy and religious studies, bioethics
  • Yu-Che Chen, political science, e-government
The institute also funded a seed grant program this year and last. A year ago, 11 researchers received a total of $87,000 in grants, varying in size from $3,900 to $13,000. This year, six interdisciplinary teams representing fields as varied as agronomy, journalism, philosophy, political science and economics are sharing $35,500 in small grants.

One of the measures of success for the seed grants, Lee said, is a team's success in securing external funding to continue its work on a larger scale. External funding awards stay with the faculty affiliates, he said. The institute does not take a portion.

"We can't have another layer of bureaucracy eating up the resources," Orazem added. "The administration of this institute has a very small footprint."

Public discussion
With the conviction that "we ought to talk about what we're working on," as Orazem puts it, the institute coordinates a monthly lunch-hour seminar series this year. Two have met already; the third will feature Dan Ashlock, mathematics, who will talk about data overload on Wednesday, Nov. 19.

Lee also is planning a second spring public lecture. Last March, the institute brought former National Science Foundation director Neal Lane to campus. Lane offered a present-day assessment of the chasm between the sciences and humanities cited in 1959 in C.P. Snow's "two cultures."

In addition, plans have begun for a public forum next September on a topic related to genetically modified (GM) crops. Lee said the idea is to select a controversial aspect of GM crops, such as their role in international trade disputes, and invite members of the scientific, political, producer and consumer communities to share their experiences. The public would be invited.

Orazem and Lee said the institute is off to a good start linking faculty with faculty. A critical question is how to share research and outcomes with the public, where they said some of it needs to land to truly be useful.

"The information gap between science and the public is getting wider," Lee said. "We need to do a better job of communicating research in lay terms."

Orazem said using existing structures -- ISU Extension or continuing education, for example -- is a possibility. "How we can connect with the general public is a question we need to answer," he said.

Institute Web site:

... Becoming the Best
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
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