Christopher Torres is a doctoral candidate in the Public Policy and Administration program at Boise State University. He holds bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and environmental studies from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as master’s degrees in the same fields from the University of Oregon. His Ph.D. research examines the institutional, political, and administrative barriers to incorporating innovative forms of public participation into U.S. federal government science and technology decision-making processes. His areas of interest are the philosophy and ethics of public administration and its relationship to public trust in democratic institutions and processes.
Why did you decide to join a PhD program? In what ways has it been what you imagined (or not!)?
I joined the Public Policy and Administration PhD program for two reasons. Personally, I never thought I’d be able to attend college, let alone finish a graduate degree. I was raised in a religious Mexican-American immigrant household where what was expected of me was to either become a priest and stay close to home, or get a job like my father, a mechanic, and stay close to home. After completing a master’s degree, I thought I’d might as well keep going, do what had felt culturally impossible for so long, and get letters after my name. Completing a PhD will be a personal accomplishment, a testament to achieving something that I had been told wasn’t meant for me.
On an academic and intellectual level, my desire for a PhD in public policy and administration has to do with my background in philosophy and environmental studies, specifically political philosophy and environmental humanities. I spent years reading how certain political ideas in government and in the American environmental movement have caused harm and injustice to communities, especially communities of color. I wanted to know more about the political processes in government and society that have made these injustices happen. I reached a point, however, where professors in my classes were answering most of my questions with, “well, that’s an empirical question,” a practical question that needs to be researched in the real world. Those kinds of questions were for disciplines outside of philosophy and environmental studies to grapple with. I wanted answers to my empirical questions about government and environmental regulations, so I joined the program hoping to find them.
In terms of what I was expecting, I knew that mastering a new field, along with gaining expertise in science and technology studies (the focus of my dissertation) was going to be a challenge. It has been exactly as steep of a learning curve as I imagined it would be! What has been surprising, however, is just how much fertile ground there is for cross-pollination between my philosophy background and public administration. That has been the most surprising part of this journey; I actually have something to contribute.
Tell us a little bit about your dissertation topic
My dissertation examines what it takes to have innovative forms of public participation in U.S. federal government science and technology decision-making. It is a two-part problem. First, science and technology decision-making in society has historically been left to the experts. The public, whose lives are most impacted by how the scientific or technological questions are asked and answered, are often left out of the decision-making process. Second, in government decision-making in general, opportunities for public participation that go beyond the basic public comment and consultation processes required by law are rare. This usually has to do with the way administrative rules restrict public participation and how more public participation may impact the politics within agencies. These two together make government science and technology decision-making especially resistant to more open and innovative forms of public participation. My dissertation examines the policy, political, and administrative contexts surrounding how participatory technology assessment, a form of deliberative public participation into topics of science and technology, was incorporated into the programmatic decision-making processes of three U.S. federal agencies – NASA, Department of Energy, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I hope that by bringing together concepts and tools from policy studies, public administration, and science and technology studies, I can contribute to our understanding of how to create greater opportunities for more innovative forms of public participation in government science and technology decision-making.
Can you connect your dissertation to a current event or issue people care about today?
I think that at the root of some of the major issues we have seen in the U.S. this year, be it the protests against racial injustice and police brutality or the public protests to government public health policies meant to address the COVID-19 pandemic, is a lack of public trust in government decision-making processes and institutions. While I’m one of the first to point out how different the contexts between protesting racial injustice in law enforcement and protesting mask mandates are, they both share a grievance concerning the power government institutions have over us and how we in the public are left out of the decision-making and accountability processes. Even though my dissertation focuses on science and technology decision-making, at its core it’s about what it takes to create greater opportunities for more meaningful public participation in government. Creating more opportunities for more meaningful public participation in government decision-making processes and institutions is an important element in building a stronger and more stable relationship of public trust.
Do you have a memory or lesson from one of your classes that you think will stick with you into the future?
In the Fall of 2018, I took a course on administrative ethics in government with Dr. Stephanie Witt. It was through this class that I felt that I had a place in public administration, both academically and practically. The concepts and content in the class brought my love for political philosophy and ethics together with the real life consequences that the power of government has on our lives. The course highlighted how government ethics is not just about obvious issues involved with financial disclosures and conflicts of interest, nor even about the malicious use of government power to oppress specific communities. It is also about looking into the unintentional, systemic processes that create harmful unintended consequences for so many different communities and segments of the public. It opened my eyes to the realization that while we have centuries of political philosophy dealing with how to legitimately create and distribute democratic power in the structures of government, we have very little philosophy on how to grapple with the ethical administration of government. Intellectually, after this class I feel that there is a space to explore government accountability and ethics other than becoming an administrative law scholar. Professionally, it inspires me to seek a job in public service that helps find and end the unintended harmful consequences of government.
The pandemic has been really hard on researchers, for all sorts of reasons. How have you had to adapt?
Even before the pandemic, the transition from coursework to dissertation work had already changed what I had to consider as a productive day. Reading everything I needed to prepare for class discussion is a clear, definitive task. For dissertation work, though, even if you give yourself the goal of reading through a specific set of literature or writing a couple of pages, it always feels like there is something else you could and should be doing. It is hard to turn it off. The pandemic has only amplified that anxiety. Achieving small goals had already felt daunting, but the pandemic, and everything that has come with it, has made it that much more difficult to focus or feel like the work I’ve done is enough. I’ve had to adapt what it means to be productive and feel useful. My advisor’s weekly reminder of being gracious with myself has become a mantra through this process.