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Symposium at MU connects policymakers, scientists

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 | 6:42 p.m. CDT; updated 3:38 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 4, 2012

COLUMBIA — Several MU undergraduates hosted a symposium Wednesday hoping to bridge the gap between science and policymaking.

Legislators, scientists, attorneys, students and even former NASA astronauts met at Memorial Union for the daylong dialogue, divided into six topic-specific panels. The event's overarching theme concerned the intersection of politics and science and the roadblocks separating the two communities from working together to achieve efficient public policy.

The symposium was largely the brainchild of Marc Canellas, an engineering student. Canellas said he experienced the lack of mutual understanding between scientists and lawmakers firsthand when he spent the past summer working on space policy in Washington, D.C.

He said the lightbulb moment came when he realized his scientific peers seemed to work in a vacuum, avoiding communication with the political realm.

"Scientists don't get out of their cubicles," Canellas said."If engineers know nothing about how policy affects them, then how can they influence policy in the right way?"

When Canellas returned to Columbia he emailed Bill Horner, a political science professor at MU, with the idea of hosting a conference bringing together professionals from a variety of disciplines to talk about the lack of collaboration.

Horner was on board immediately and brought in a few undergraduate members of Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science honors fraternity on campus, to help plan the event, Canellas said.

After spending the fall 2011 semester sorting out the details, the symposium blueprint emerged in January packed with big names like former U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, political strategist and science advocate Shawn Lawrence Otto and current U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, the only physicist in U.S. Congress.

Bond kicked the day off in a crowded Stotler Lounge with opening remarks promoting the union of politics and science.

"We live in a time of breakthrough of scientific discovery in energy technology, military technology and biological technology," Bond said. "We need Washington to respond to science rather than the political passions of the day."

Bond then addressed the future of science, technology, engineering and math education in the U.S. He said the country needs to attract more students to these sectors of academia.

Following Bond's welcome speech, a variety of expert panelists discussed topics including the future of NASA after drastic budget cuts, the effects of changes to U.S. patent law on the scientific community and how governmental processes can help further research and development nationwide.

Horner said he thought the symposium was successful and showed a lot of value.

"In a (scholastic) environment like this we operate with blinders on," Horner said. "This is bringing people together who never talk but depend on each other in the real world."


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