Combined degree program unites evidence-based science and policy

Collage including photos of Josh Cruz, Grace George, and Kao Lee Yang
From left to right: Josh Cruz, Grace George, and Kao Lee Yang

The La Follette School partners with the Neuroscience Training Program to offer a unique neuroscience Ph.D. and Master of Public Affairs (MPA) combined degree that is one of its kind in the country.

The program, known as neuroscience and public policy (NPP), is grounded in the belief that sound science and technology policy is essential to the well-being of society. Training scientists who know how to shape public policy can spark neuroscience advancements with policy implications for child welfare and education, community development, mental health and health care, bioethics and aging, environmental risks, and national security.

Courses prepare students for careers involved in the management of science and its integration into policy analysis and design. Students become expert scientists and effective communicators, managers, and advocates of good public policy.

Joshua Cruz, a NPP student who completed the MPA degree side of the combined program in 2018, found that the NPP program gave him the background to understand mental health science and “the tools to pursue work that integrates both science and the policy-making process into improving the resources and access in supporting individuals with mental illness.”

Cruz, who initially was not in the combined degree program, says he wanted to pursue a degree with La Follette because of his interest in examining policies and bureaucracy. “I was particularly interested in examining policies and the infrastructure of mental health that extended beyond the biological mechanisms of disease,” recalls Cruz.

Grace George, another NPP student who, like Cruz, is currently completing the research aspect of her Ph.D. in neuroscience, completed her MPA degree in 2021. She seeks to blend her skillset in an interdisciplinary setting post-graduation. “I saw the importance of incorporating science into policy decision making while also trying to focus my science and work where it can best be utilized,” says George. “Both programs will also allow me to pursue careers that are interdisciplinary and combine my full range of interests.”

Courses in the La Follette School, including Introduction to Policy Analysis with Professor Dave Weimer, gave George the hands-on skills and experience with policy analysis needed for a policy-related job, while courses in the neuroscience program gave George the needed scientific knowledge and rigorous research training needed for an interdisciplinary role.

For current NPP student Kao Lee Yang, La Follette coursework with Professors Teodoro and Johnson taught her the importance of stakeholders — both in science and policy. “Stakeholder analysis is something I think about often as I work on Alzheimer’s disease research,” said Yang. “There are many important stakeholders whose decisions affect the trajectory of Alzheimer’s research, therapies, and treatment programs.”

“My NPP education allows me to explore two seemingly different fields, and the most exciting part is the gray area, where these fields intersect,” Yang concluded. “I love that we have NPP seminars every semester where we can meet individuals who have carved out amazing careers in this gray area.”

Learn more about the neuroscience and public policy program and NPP students and alumni.

– Written by Will Keenan