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New program in neuroscience and public policy offered

September 13, 2005 By Terry Devitt

Modern neuroscience is advancing understanding of the brain and behavior at a pace that few could have imagined even five years ago. The resulting knowledge is transforming our understanding of brain function in health and disease, with profound implications for society.

Recognizing this, two UW–Madison faculty now have created a new dual-degree graduate program in Neuroscience and Public Policy to train students how to apply this knowledge to problems in public policy.

“Think about the neurobiology of violence and aggression,” says Clark Miller, a professor of science and technology policy and one of two co-organizers of the new program. “Or what about brain mechanisms that are responsible for intelligence and creativity? How will advances in these fields affect society’s approach to education, mental health, crime, national security, or the environment?”

The brain, Miller notes, is relevant to all of them because it controls learning and behavior – and learning and behavior are what public policy is all about.

The idea for the program grew out of discussions in the Neuroscience Training Program, which was selected two years ago by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to help lead a national effort to rethink the Ph.D. degree.

“Universities have been slow to respond to the importance of bringing neuroscience to bear on public policy,” notes Ronald Kalil, a professor of neuroscience in the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences, and the program’s other co-organizer. “We saw the need for a graduate program that would prepare neuroscientists not only to carry out fundamental research but also to work directly with officials and the public to help solve policy problems related to the brain and behavior.”

The new program offers students a doctoral degree in neuroscience from the Neuroscience Training Program and a master’s degree in public policy from the La Follette School of Public Affairs. The objectives of the program are to promote research into the complex, dynamic, and often uncertain intersections of brain, mind, and society and to enhance communication among neuroscientists and policymakers.

“When neuroscientists simply dictate to society, they don’t get very far,” notes Kalil. “Instead, students in the program will learn to work with legislators, policy analysts and the public to develop scientifically informed policies that deal wisely with issues that cut across brain and behavior and also reflect public values.”

Kalil says there is a growing need for scientifically trained individuals to work in policy agencies. Forecasts indicate there will be hundreds of new positions in science policy in the nation’s capital in the next decade. Demand is also increasing at universities and companies for scientists who are comfortable talking about their research with policy officials, the public, and the media, and who understand the application of science to policy problems and the ethics of scientific research.

Indeed, public controversies in some scientific fields are fast making these skills a necessity, he says.

As with other fields in the biological sciences, such as genetics and stem cell research, Miller says, “advances in neuroscience carry both enormous promise as well as potential pitfalls.”

For example, according to Miller, it is not unreasonable to speculate that within the next 25 years, neuroscientists will have learned enough about the biology of the brain to begin to manipulate and control it. The implications, he says, are enormous, and society will have to make hard choices about which applications of this knowledge are acceptable and which are not. “We anticipate that graduates of the program will be among those playing central roles in these decisions,” Miller says.

The program will begin accepting applications this fall for enrollment in the fall of 2006. The application deadline is Dec. 15, 2005. Further information about the program, including the program curriculum and course descriptions, is available online.