Human activity is having a greater impact on our environments than ever before. Climate change is one of the main threats to species and ecosystems, and poor agricultural practices are a primary driver of biodiversity loss and the generation of greenhouse gases. Without policy-driven changes on the part of humans, predictions for the environment in the future look dire.

Solving environmental and societal problems through scientifically backed policy was the focus of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Policy (STEP) keynote seminar held on April 12, featuring Claire Kremen, professor and President’s Excellence chair of biodiversity at the University of British Columbia. Kremen discussed how climate change, biodiversity loss, and unsustainable resource extraction form a triple threat to our era, interacting with one another to have a significant impact on humanity and the planet.

In her presentation, “Managing Landscapes to Reduce the Triple Anthropocene Threat,” Kremen discussed how a working land conservation approach could be promoted through policy to address these threats to the environment.

“Incentivizing positive practices through government programs is still needed,” said Kremen.

When asked during the question-and-answer period whether policy can be effective in initiating greater diversification in land practices, Kremen asserted that it could, noting that the reason corn and soy are so widely produced in the Midwest is a result of policy choices. Policy shapes agricultural decisions in deeply important ways.

Kremen’s focus on policy as a means to find solutions to complex issues such as climate change underscores the primary purpose of the STEP program.

“The STEP program is an initiative of the Policy Destination Area (DA), which focuses on the intersection of public policy and science, technology, engineering, math, and health care (STEM-H) fields broadly defined and provides skills so that we can be more effective actors at that science and policy interface,” said Todd Schenk, associate professor of Urban Affairs and Planning in the School of Public and International Affairs and STEP program director. “Our aim with the program is to enhance the capabilities of STEM-H students, practitioners, and scholars to be effective participants and collaborators in policy processes.”

STEP helps participants understand complex societal problems and effectively collaborate in decision-making and policy processes to address them. The program’s first formal offering is a graduate certificate, which was formally launched in February 2021. The STEP program hosted Kremen as the culmination of its seminar series for this year, which focused on a range of contemporary societal issues that have important policy implications.

“What we are doing is fostering a community of researchers, students, and others who seek to affect change rooted in the best available science and giving them a better understanding of policy processes so that they can navigate and advocate for a broad range of professional and public interests,” Schenk said.

According to Gates Palissery, a doctoral student in the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health program at Virginia Tech, the STEP graduate program is fulfilling its role of providing innovative strategies for policy development, implementation, and analysis to address multifaceted decisions across multiple settings.  

“I believe that science and policy are intricately intertwined — policy determines what and how research gets funded — and that science can influence how policy is made and enforced,” said Palissery who has taken three of the four required courses for the certificate. “The STEP program gives us, scientists and students, the opportunity to learn more about policy and how our work can tie in to it.”

While the STEP program is targeted toward graduate students, there are many avenues for engagement for other stakeholders, faculty, staff, other students, and external partners, which Schenk hopes will increase in the future.

“In my opinion the two STEP keynote speakers to date have been exceptional examples of high-quality research that directly interfaces with policy,” said Jacob Barney, associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, who attended the keynote seminar and serves on the STEP program’s advisory committee. “Most of us have little exposure or knowledge of policy or the policymaking process, and even less in how our research may interface and inform policy.”

Another way the STEP program is building a more policy-informed community is through its inclusion in the recently awarded “Convergence at the Interfaces of Policy, Data Science, Environmental Science and Engineering for Combating Antimicrobial Resistance” National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship program. This $3 million project requires trainees to complete the STEP graduate certificate as part of their core studies.

According to Schenk, also a co-investigator on the grant, “We are always looking for partnerships, and certainly one we are extremely proud of and grateful for is the research traineeship program, which brings together Ph.D. students across disciplines to help develop science-based policy to combat the spread of antimicrobial resistance as a pressing societal challenge."

As part of Virginia Tech’s Policy DA, the STEP program brings together a community of scholars to fulfill the Policy DA’s mission to integrate Virginia Tech’s natural strengths with novel and innovative strategies to solve local, regional and global problems. The Institute for Society, Culture and Environment is the administrative home of the Policy DA.

For more information about the STEP program, visit or contact Todd Schenk, program director.

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