Breaking Down the Expertise Barrier to Protect the Public from Science and Technology: Reflections on the 2019-2020 STPP Lecture Series

March 16, 2020

By Stephanie Sandoval-Pistorius, M.S., Neuroscience Ph.D. Candidate and STPP certificate student

This year, I took the Politics of Public Policy and Introduction to Science and Technology Policy Analysis by Shobita Parthasarathy and Joy Rhode, respectively. In these courses, I learned about the “expertise barrier”, which is the practice of limiting science and technology policymaking to those with technical expertise (1). While in the STPP certificate program, I gained an appreciation for hearing the opinions of the general population on science and technology policy (STP). The importance of involving non-scientists in STP was echoed in the STPP lecture series this year, which has led me to believe that public engagement in STP is key to protecting the public from harm that can come from science and technology (S&T). 

In his lecture entitled, Show Your Face? The Pros and Cons of Facial Recognition Technology on our Civil Liberties Chris Calabrese, J.D. discussed the harm that can take place if facial recognition technology is left unchecked. Mr. Calabrese explained, “[Face recognition is] powerful, it’s useful, and it’s often dangerous, like many technologies.” Facial recognition can be used for many good things like finding a wanted fugitive or a missing child, but it can also be used to monitor specific groups of people, as is done in China (2).  Mr. Calabrese believes that creating strong regulations is key to using powerful technologies responsibly and that at the heart of such regulation should be consent and transparency. He reminded us that “[a]s we incorporate more and more technology into our lives, we have to think about the impact of that technology and what we want to do with it.”

In her talk entitled, To Solve Drug Pricing We Must Solve the Drug Patent Problem, Priti Krishtel, J.D. showed that not only can individual technologies cause harm but also the systems in place around them. The U.S. patent system was originally established as a means of incentivizing innovation by granting individuals exclusivity to their inventions/discoveries (2). However, as Mrs. Krishtel explains, patents have become a tool for companies to maintain exclusivity on a drug to keep prices high, leading to structural economic inequality. High drug prices disproportionately effect low-income communities and communities of color, which can lead to generational poverty (3). She gave the example of drug prices increasing by 700% when patents were placed on therapeutics in India. Mrs. Krishtel has worked to make pharmaceuticals more available to those in need and is currently working to reform the U.S. patent system. In her talk, Mrs. Kristel stressed that public participation is key to patent reform. 

The dangerous use of S&T is not modern. Technology has been used to harm others and there has been systemic abuse of others in the name of science before. One way we can control the negative impact of scientific advances is by eliminating the expertise barrier. Another way of broadening the types of voices involved in S&T policy is by diversifying the community of technical experts. In Layne Scherer’s STPP lecture on the recent National Academies of Science report, Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century, she discussed how to improve graduate STEM education. One of the recommendations in the report is “Ensuring Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Environments.” Increasing the diversity of the STEM community will hopefully lead to increased diversity of those who have a voice in establishing STP. It will be harder to avoid or forget about the potential harm a technology can cause marginalized communities when members of those communities are involved in not only creating the technology but also in creating the policies that regulate their use. 

As a scientist, it seemed strange to me that we should take into consideration the opinions of those without a strong science background when considering STP, especially in a time when science and facts seems to not be a priority for a large portion of the country. But, as Mrs. Kristel says, “I think that in this rapidly evolving area of medicine, science and technology policy there has to be more of a robust public discussion, and public input has to start influencing the direction we take on matter of public policy.” Hopefully, as STPP students, we can lead the charge on making S&T more equitable.  

1.    Parthasarathy, Shobita. “Breaking the Expertise Barrier: Understanding Activist Strategies in Science and Technology Policy Domains.” Science and Public Policy, vol. 37, no. 5, Jan. 2010, pp. 355–367., doi:10.3152/030234210x501180.
2.    Feng, Emily. “How China Is Using Facial Recognition Technology.” NPR, NPR, 16 Dec. 2019,….
3.    Montague, Gilbert H. “The Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Patent Law.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 21, no. 6, 1912, p. 433., doi:10.2307/784715.