The need for interdisciplinary tech policy training

The need for interdisciplinary tech policy training

By Nick Doty, CTSP, with Richmond Wong, Anna Lauren Hoffman and Deirdre K. Mulligan | Permalink

Conversations about substantive tech policy issues — privacy-by-design, net neutrality, encryption policy, online consumer protection — frequently evoke questions of education and people. “How can we encourage privacy earlier in the design process?” becomes “How can we train and hire engineers and lawyers who understand both technical and legal aspects of privacy?” Or: “What can the Federal Trade Commission do to protect consumers from online fraud scams?” becomes “Who could we hire into an FTC bureau of technologists?” Over the past month, members of the I School community have participated in several events where these tech policy conversations have occurred:

  • Catalyzing Privacy by Design: fourth in a series of NSF-sponsored workshops, organized with the Computing Community Consortium, to develop a privacy by design research agenda
  • Workshop on Problems in the Public Interest: hosted by the Technology Science Research Collaboration Network at Harvard to generate new research questions
  • PrivacyCon: an event to bridge academic research and policymaking at the Federal Trade Commission

In talking with people from government, academia, industry, and civil society, we identified several common messages:

  • a value of getting academics talking to industry, non-profits and government is that we can hear concrete requests
  • there is a shared recognition that, for many values that apply throughout the lifecycle of an organization or a project, we require trained people as well as processes and tools
  • because these problems are interdisciplinary, there is a new and specific need for interdisciplinarily people to bridge gaps; we hear comments like “we need more Latanya Sweeneys” or “we need more Ashkan Soltanis” and “we need people to translate”

We are also urged by these events to define “interdisciplinary” broadly. Tech policy problems are not only problems of law and software engineering — they also demand social scientific, economic, and humanistic investigation, as well as organizational or philosophical/ethical analyses. Such issues also require the methodological diversity that accompanies interdisciplinary collaboration; in particular, we have been pleasantly surprised to see how well-received and novel lessons from human-centered design and design practice have been to lawyers and engineers working in privacy.

Workshops like these are a good place to identify needs, problems and open research questions. But they’re also opportunities to start sketching out responses and proposing solutions. In view of these recent events, we stress the following takeaways:

  1. different institutions working on training for tech policy can build on previous conversations and events to collaboratively develop curricula and practical knowledge
  2. funding is available, including potential sources in NSF and in private foundations
  3. career paths are increasingly available if not easily defined, so we should connect students with emerging opportunities

We hope to have more to share on these three points soon. For now, a call: Are you working on case studies, a syllabus, tools or training for teaching issues at the intersection of technology and policy? We’d like to hear from you. We will develop a repository of these teaching and training resources.

Other writing about these events:

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