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Of science and politics

Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff visited a class that introduces science students to politics. Photo by: Wayne Armstrong

Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff visited a class that introduces science students to politics. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

It’s been said that all politics is local. Turns out, some science is politics.

Chemistry and biochemistry Professor Lawrence Berliner introduced 15 freshmen students to the world where lobbying politicians and government officials in the halls of the legislature and on Capitol Hill can be as important as research done in the lab.

His fall quarter freshmen seminar Bioethics in Science and Medicine: Politics and the Nobel Prize introduced students to behind-the-scenes wrangling and how government funding, political agendas and networking play a role in scientific research.

“I [wanted] them to have an appreciation and understanding of what goes on in the legislative process,” Berliner says.

In addition to reading extensively and writing reports, students met with political leaders who guide government spending. They talked about a lawmaker’s job with Colorado State Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada. They visited with staffers for incoming U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, and they studied the works of scientists who have navigated the world where politics meet research and still went on to win the Nobel Prize.

Freshman Nick Pisciotta, a molecular biology major, says the course was an eye-opener.

“I’ve always been interested in science and see a future for myself in science,” he says. “But I didn’t realize how much of an issue government funding is in research.”

In addition to visiting legislative offices, the class also watched and discussed the HBO film And the Band Played On, an account of how the fight over research into the AIDS epidemic played out in the White House and Congress in the early 1980s.

To wrap up the quarter, students had a visit from Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver. Romanoff, who left office at the end of 2008 due to term limits, said he always encourages public participation in the governing process. He added that lawmakers welcome input from informed people on every issue.

“I’ve never thought that one political party had all the answers,” Romanoff told the class. “That would be arrogant.”

Freshmen seminars — required for all incoming first-year students — are designed to provide students with an in-depth academic experience that will be rigorous and engaging and to help develop the kinds of academic skills that will prepare students for successful college work, including writing, critical reading and thinking, discussion, argument and debate.

Berliner, who had not offered a session on the politics of science before, says he was surprised at the caliber of government officials who agreed to visit with the class. Bringing Romanoff, one of the most powerful men in Colorado government, to campus for a lecture was a great surprise, Berliner says.

“It was very gratifying to see how much people really wanted to help,” he says.

Berliner says he especially enjoys opening the eyes of young science students to the world of career possibilities, including government service and public education.

“I know we have civics classes in school, but showing students how all of this fits together, how science can serve and influence the legislative process — it’s an eye-opener for some of them,” Berliner says. “If one or two of these students end up getting interested in something in government or public service, then I’ve done my job.”


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