Science for Policy
A DISCUSSION OFScience for Hyper-Partisan Times
In “Science for Hyper-Partisan Times” (Issues, Spring 2021), Jeffrey Warren tells the history of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, based at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His frame is as the Collaboratory’s leader, cast into the role within a university whose leaders and faculty members initially were distrustful of someone moving from NC Senate Republican staff to the university. My perspective is as the dean of a school that was a natural collaborator with the new entity; one of our departments is environmental sciences and engineering. Before the Collaboratory had been launched, there was concern, as Warren recounts, that its funding was a way for Republican legislators to control environmental research and regulation. Many leaders and faculty members across the university were skeptical about the Collaboratory, fearful that accepting funding from the new entity might taint them.
My experience in leading a large National Institutes of Health division had taught me the value of bipartisanship. We are neither the Republican school of public health nor the Democratic school of public health. We are the people’s school of public health. Practically speaking, at the time the Collaboratory was launched, with Democrats out of power in the White House, the NC governor’s mansion, and the state house, we needed new friends, or, at least, allies. I was willing to give Warren a chance.
However, I also was determined that we accept funds only if they were unconstrained by politics. A few faculty members applied for pilot funds and had good experiences. I agreed to meet with Warren. We recognized that we had similar goals: creating a more environmentally healthy state, contributing to the scientific knowledge base with policy-relevant work, funding our faculty researchers, and creating a model that could be replicated in other states.
As the first grants were completed, it was clear that strong research with practical application potential had been funded. The findings and views of scientists had not been directed or stifled. Researchers and administrators saw that we were in this together, and that people on both sides of the political aisle could support an environmentally healthy state and use science as the foundation for policy and regulation. On many occasions, legislators from both parties were curious and interested in environmental science. I participated in a call in which one of our researchers gave a minitutorial to a legislator about mass spectroscopy—at his request.
When the pandemic struck, thanks to the strong relationships enabled by the Collaboratory, we went to legislative leaders with a request for substantial funding to answer critical questions related to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They listened and asked hard questions. In the end, as Warren recounts, they provided about $44 million for the Collaboratory to manage projects of researchers from multiple UNC universities to address pressing questions—from those related to COVID-19 testing and transmission, to the efficacy of wastewater systems for virus surveillance, to how to help businesses return to prosperity as the pandemic eased. I am not aware of another state that provided such generous funding to its universities to apply their scientific expertise to speed the end of the pandemic.
It was not all milk and honey. We, in academia, were quick to bristle when some of our statements were questioned by legislators. We sometimes defaulted to distrust legislators. I suspect they may have felt the same way about us. But something positive happened over the last several years of the Collaboratory. Many faculty members and administrators had gone from hands-off to cautious appraisal to full-on partnership. Jeff Warren often acted as an effective translator and communicator between researchers and legislators. The results are good for all participants and for the environment of North Carolina. Academics and legislators should talk more, judge less, and focus on outcomes that benefit their states and regions.
Barbara K. Rimer
Alumni Distinguished Professor
UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health