Bridging the Gap: Science to Policy (with Susan Hackwood)

In this episode, Director of the Center of Science to Policy at the University of California, Riverside Susan Hackwood talks with students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy about bridging the gap between science and public policy.

FEATURING Susan Hackwood
May 7, 2021



In this episode, Director of the Center of Science to Policy at the University of California, Riverside Susan Hackwood talks with students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy about bridging the gap between science and public policy.

About Susan Hackwood:

Susan Hackwood is Professor of the Graduate Division and Edward A. Dickson Emeritus Professor at the University of California Riverside. She is also Dean Emeritus of the Bourns College of Engineering. Until July 2018 she was the Executive Director of the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST). CCST is a not-for-profit corporation comprised of 200 plus science and technology leaders of the highest distinction.

Learn more about Susan Hackwood via

Podcast Highlights:

“There is an enormous need to bridge the science world with the policy world.”

-       Susan Hackwood on the topic of why Science to Policy was founded at UC Riverside.

"We were all amazed at the appetite, and the interest, and the willingness of graduate students to tiptoe into the policy world."

-       Susan Hackwood on the topic of the need for the Science to Policy program.

"A huge super goal that we have is to get more and more women to run for office."

-       Susan Hackwood on the topic of public policy's future.


Susan Hackwood (Director of the Center of Science to Policy at the UCR)


Maddie Bunting (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Chief Ambassador)

Music by:

C Codaine

Commercial Links:

This is a production of the UCR School of Public Policy:

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  • Bridging the Gap: Science to Policy (with Susan Hackwood)

    Introduction: Welcome to Policy Chats, the official podcast of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. I’m your host, Maddie Bunting. Join me and my classmates as we learn about potential policy solutions for today’s biggest societal challenges.


     Joining us today is director of Science to Policy of the University of California Riverside, Dr. Susan Hackwood. I chatted with her about bridging the gap between science and public policy. 


    Maddie Bunting: Dr. Hackwood, you are the director of Science to Policy, also known as S2P, at the University of California, Riverside. You are a professor of the graduate division and Edward A. Dickson Emeritus professor at UC Riverside. You are also Dean Emeritus of the Bourns College of Engineering. Until July of 2018, you were the executive director of the California Council on Science and Technology. And you are also credited for inventing the concept of electrowetting with Gerardo Benny in 1981. What a truly impressive resume. Thank you so much for joining us today.


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: Thank you for having me. I'm looking forward to this. 


    Maddie Bunting: Wonderful. So Science to Policy at UCR is founded on the idea that scientists can and should play a critical role in public policy. Can you share with the audience the purpose and goals at the center for Science to Policy at UC Riverside?


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: Yes, of course. And I'd like to do that in context, a little bit of history of how it got started, because it's extremely relevant. So I was an engineer for many years in electrical and computer engineering, but then I ran the California Council on Science and Technology, which is the de facto state advisory for science and technology for Sacramento. So we represent all the major academic institutions and the federal laboratories and NASA and the DUE labs. So it's thousands of scientists and engineers and medical doctors. And many who volunteer their time to make sure that sound science is used in policy-making in Sacramento. And in running that program for a long time, you begin to realize that there is an enormous need to bridge the science world with the policy world. They speak different languages, do different things. So they think differently. So it was more and more important that that become emphasized. We started a fellowship program where we placed PhD graduates, usually recent PhD graduates, and place them into legislative offices. And that was, I ran that for about 10 years with my friend and colleague Doug Brown, who works with me in the science to policy program at UCR. And it was amazingly effective because these graduates become embedded into legislative offices. And it's transformational what they do in working with policymakers to make sounder policy. So it was really interesting and really cool. And I run that for a long time and it was wonderful. Then when I retired after that, I came down to Riverside and through a couple of students that I was already working with on a water project, at CCST, a couple of UCR students. We run a couple of events on how someone with a graduate program in science engineering or the social sciences or medicine, how they can become active in the policy world. And every time we had one of these meetings we would attract like 60 or 70 graduate students. I was just amazed in fact we were all amazed at the appetite and the interest and the willingness of graduate students to look in, to tiptoe into the policy world and become the known and trusted adviser to a legislator or a member of Congress. So we were absolutely thrilled. So we thought we have to do something about this. So we created the Science to Policy program, and it is led by our student cabinet because the students who are the lifeblood of the organization, doing a number of programs, we ran events. We did a mock hearing, for example, you might have heard of doing a mock trial when you're a law student. So we do mock hearings where the students get to play out the role of the legislator, the role of the expert witness, the heckler at the back, and all the things that actually go into the policy-making process. So we started doing these events, found it really interesting, and then decided to do certificate class. Now, the certificate course is based on the 12 years of experience that we had in training PhD graduates to become policy savvy. So we run our first class and we had 15 graduate students attend. We kept it to 15 because it's important to be very personal with the students. You really get to know them. They get to know you, they get to talk to many people. And that was very successful. And we went on and we've now taught it three times. And we're going to teach it again probably in the fall.


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    Maddie Bunting: I understand that the Center for Science and Policy Program also has a female majority in each class. Do you have any theories as to why the program attracts so many female scientists? 


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: That's a good point. I’ve been trying to figure it out for quite a few years. It's very interesting. Usually, if we have a cohort of students, about 70 percent of them are female. And if you look at CCST, look at their fellows, it's similar. And if you look at the Triple S program, which is the major program in DC that places graduate students or graduates into congratulate officers, that's also around that percentage. So why? You know, I really like to ask the audience right to me and tell me why do you think this is happening? Is it because women are more attuned to issues that are related to policy? Many have had to overcome some adversary going into science as a woman student. But it really is, it hit bad. Now it's interesting that that is now not reflected if elected officials, yes, it tails off. So a huge super goal that we have is to get more and more women to run for office. And so I'll put a plug-in, an ad out here in a month or so as time we're going to do an event on running for office. How to run for office.


    Maddie Bunting: I will be there! That sounds lovely. 


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: I would just love to see Governor Bunting one day. 


    Maddie Bunting: You're too sweet. Thank you. I will find the link for that and I'll make sure to put that in the description because that is a wonderful point  you make. Representation in elected offices… it's not there, it's getting better and better, but it's still, I mean, 50% of those in Congress are not female. So that the numbers do tail off, which is interesting, but I love to see that your program and so many others do have a female majority. And talking about elected officials, you've mentioned that participating graduate students in Science to Policy engage with practitioners at the highest level to understand local, state, and federal policy-making. How did you manage to get so many policy leaders to come and teach classes, be judges and competitive events, and host students in their offices? 


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: Yeah. We do. We get a lot of people interested and that's consistent. I think it's because elected officials first of all, got a good goal in mind of doing good policy, right? So they are interested in influencing the next generation, being involved with the next-generation, being mentors to the next generation, and they generally really want to be engaged. They want to tell how they got into policy, why they went into policy and to occur to the students to work with them. In fact, most of the elected officials, when they do come and help teach class, for example, will do things say, if you've got a good policy idea, come and pitch it to me. And so we follow up on that because we do teach students how to make policy pitches. And so one of the events we had, for example, in November was we did a Policy Slam, which is a bit like Shark Tank and a bit like Grad Slam combined together, where graduate students gave a four minute pitch on a policy idea to a panel of elected officials. So we had the Mayor of Palm Desert, The Mayor of Coachella, we had an assembly member, we had a Congressman, all come in and join in on that. And they judged the pitch of the students, which was really good fun. 


    Maddie Bunting: Have these relationships cultivated over time? Any alumni, do you personally know anyone? I mean, a congress member, that's at the federal level. So that's really amazing. 


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: Yes. We work mostly with our local elected officials. Back in the days when we used to meet in person, it was because we could meet them in person. So members of Congress and members of the State Assembly and the members of the State Senate. And yes, we work with them. And over the last three years we've built up a sufficiently strong relationship with quite a few. They invite students to come and join them in their local office as a fellow for a period of time. So it could be over a summer, it could be part-time during the year because it's important not to derail their PhD, of course, they need to do their PhD because that's the value that they bring to the table. So, we've had four fellows in elected officials offices so far. And they tell a great story. You should invite them on as well!


    Maddie Bunting: Yes! Yes, we will.


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: Because they have done the nitty-gritty of actually understanding the day-to-day operations of a local elected officials office, how it works, what's the calendar, What's the deadlines? Where and when to pitch a policy idea? And the elected officials are always super welcoming. It's a great, fun program. 


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    Maddie Bunting: That's wonderful. I'm just thinking with current times with COVID and public health becoming a greater priority. Health insurance has been a conversation for a long time, but public health in this past year has risen in the ranks. Have you or any graduate students, anyone doing this work? I mean, this is a great opportunity to bridge that gap to, you know, with reopening plans, anything like that. Do you see this as a great opportunity to show there is a need to bridge that gap and look to science and research to form public policy?


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: Oh, yes, absolutely. This last year we've had two graduate students embedded with one in a Member of Congress Office, Mark Takano, Congressman Mark Takano. And one into an assembly member, Assembly Member. Reyas. And both have been working on the societal impact of COVID. One on the access to early childcare, and the other on racial disparities. So both super important and they are both writing up right now. And we'll actually last week, we had an event on fellowships. And the four students that we've had his fellows gave it, had a discussion that was live and open about what they experienced and what they did and what they're going to do now. So I recommend that, it's posted up on our website now.


    Maddie Bunting: And turning a little bit more to you, I know the graduate students are so amazing. But, you know, given that the introduction we gave back at the beginning of this episode, so are you. And you have worked extensively with industry, academia, and government partnerships to identify policy issues of societal importance. And so we were just discussing with COVID-19 with everything going on, not only in our country but in the world. What do you believe to be the main priorities policymakers should focus on for the time being? 


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: I don't think there's a single thing, obviously, there's a whole host of different things. One of the big things that are changing our world now is the digital age. And we've seen that so much during the COVID lockdown. So we're talking about Zoom. And so, there's going to be significant changes. What, how that's going to play out, and what kind of new disparities is that going to unveil? It is really important. So access to broadband networks, for example, is super important. Role of access to online schooling is super-important. online schooling is super-important. Telemedicine. Telemedicine just a leapfrog, probably 15 years of holding it back in order to be able to push it forward. Which is super cool. And by the way, I work, we've talked about industry. I worked with a company up here in Santa Barbara, I live in Santa Barbara, who was started by one of my PhD students from UCSB years and years ago. And they do telemedicine. So their business has just gone through the roof, which is really good. And telemedicine is also going to impact not just general health care, but mental healthcare because people will be able to have access to mental health. I have a daughter by the way, who did her PhD at UCR and went through the Haider program and is a medical doctor now and a psychiatrist. And she has been doing child psychiatry through Telehealth. During COVID. 


    Maddie Bunting: Wow, what an experience. I think it's great she's been able to keep it up throughout COVID when they might need it the most.


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: Absolutely, Absolutely. One of the arguments there is when you are talking to, especially to a young person and they have a mask on, you can't see much of their face. So if you take the mask off and you do telehealth, you can see them better. So that's, that's one aspect. I think another major, major aspect has been the way that vaccines have been developed. So this is all about gene sequencing, the human genome projects. Being the messenger RNA that is so vital to the vaccines. So one of our PhD graduates from our program, Derek Carterhouse, went up to the Bay Area and now works for a company that is making the robots that do the DNA sequencing. 

    Maddie Bunting: Really! 


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: Yeah, which is really cool. So I think that the whole medical field and biology, the coming of age of biology, because it's going to be so different moving forward, I think those are two major things. Other major things are, we have to put nuclear power back on the table, which people don't like. 


    Maddie Bunting: Wow, what a good point you're making. Wow, that isn’t discussed too often.


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: No, it isn't. We have, if we're going to do our carbon neutrality plans, we have to think about nuclear power again. Genetically modified foods is super-important.  Incidentally, I have an interesting story, what a couple of the students from our last class came up with the idea of, well, maybe we should be hosting meetings with middle school and high school science teachers to help them understand nuclear power, GMOs, vaccines, and whatever, because they influenced the children and they influenced the parents. So that'll be a future event also, which is also good fun. 


    Maddie Bunting: Oh my goodness, this outreach and exposure is so important. I love that, I love that. And you meet so many great points and I agree with you. It's so difficult to name one priority. There are so many, especially the more you know. Before we end, I would just love your insight. So inspirational and so are all the graduate students who are part of Science to Policy. For those listening or watching, who might be intimidated by the thought of a PhD or don't know where to start. Do you have any words of advice, any tips or tricks that you can let them know, you know, it is possible and you can do it.


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: Yes. I think the advice is to talk to people, as we've talked about our elected officials and the leader, policy leaders who are so interested in working with the students. There is that connection and that's one of the things we teach straight away in our Science to Policy program is don't be intimidated, don't be intimidated by anybody. And just go in and talk. People like to talk. People want to be mentors. People want to help. So I would encourage students to reach out, reach out to me, reach out to one of our students, reach out to, to people who help us teach classes and talk.


    Maddie Bunting: Thank you so much! The program is so amazing, I’m so thankful that UCR has it and that you’re the director and it just seems such a lovely program and I'm really happy to see just another bridge to bring science and facts and research into the policy world. So thank you for joining us today. Thank you for all of your work. It has been a real pleasure speaking with you. 


    Dr. Susan Hackwood: Well, thank you. Yes. So anyone who's listening to this podcast, please contact us. We're more than happy to talk. 

    Outro: This podcast is a production of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy. Our theme music was produced by C Codaine. I'm Maddie Bunting, till next time.