Science Corner: Governing By Osmosis

diffuse photo

Ideas may be invisible, but they are still physical. That means they take time to spread through space, just like fluids. (Photo by AnghelescuAndrei )

Osmosis has long been part of our metaphorical repertoire for describing the spread of knowledge. The implied passivity no doubt rankles some teachers, and the reappropriation of a fairly precise term for such nebulous purposes confounds some scientists. Diffusion is a more generic and so perhaps more appropriate concept to be used analogically, which is exactly the approach used for modeling how health policies spread through society. The general notion of policy adoption as a diffusion process actually seems to be about 50 years old (despite how the news item frames it). The specific new contributions are models for reconstructing networks showing who spreads which policies to whom, and how quickly.

Since I work in public health, the process of how health policies spread between states in the United States is of real, practical interest to me. During my tenure at my present employer, I’ve seen several federal regulations enacted with direct implications for our business. I can certainly attest that not every state, nor every hospital within each state, has implemented those policies immediately or simultaneously (for which allowances are made in the regulations). In the future, I can imagine that it would be useful to know how that process will unfold in advance. Stepping outside my own job, I wonder if understanding how these networks function might make it possible to roll out policy changes more efficiently. I also wonder if, for relatively small and fixed groups like the 50 states, the main players already know who the leaders and followers will be just from experience.

I can also imagine this kind of analysis being relevant in the classroom–and maybe someone has already made that application. Obviously in a classroom situation there is the flow of knowledge from the teacher to the students. But in my experience, there are often students who get a concept earlier than others, and those students help pass on their insights to peers via study groups, tutoring, or just chatting over lunch. Professors and TAs might be able to benefit from knowing more directly about those student-to-student networks; then again, they may already have a pretty good sense of them.

What knowledge do you wish would diffuse more quickly? When you are trying to spread information or implement a policy, how do you identify partners who can help you with that dissemination process?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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