IDS.410J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Modeling and Assessment for Policy


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


Some familiarity with concepts of science, technology and policy will be assumed in the class. The following are examples of classes that provide sufficient background:

For those who do not have this background, supplemental readings are available in the Readings section.


This course is designed to provide students with the critical tools necessary to perform technically-focused policy analysis. Students will gain understanding and awareness of policy considerations in scientific assessment, practice using quantitative tools to conduct policy-relevant analyses, and evaluate the effectiveness of quantitative and scientific information in decision-making contexts. This is an appropriate course both for students who conduct policy-relevant science and engineering work, as well as those who are potential users of scientific analyses or quantitative output. As this class is cross-listed between the Engineering Systems Division and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, several examples will be drawn from modeling of earth and environmental systems.

Course Structure

This course is a designed to be interactive and incorporate active learning. Problem sets will be assigned to develop your familiarity with class themes. We use a case study approach to identifying key lessons about the benefits and limitations of particular tools and best practices in technically-focused policy analysis.


Technically-focused policy analysis is complex. There are no easy answers or plug-and-play approaches that you need only learn and apply. To conduct effective analyses, one needs deep understanding of relevant analytical tools, their advantages and limitations, and a broad understanding of previous experiences: what worked, what didn’t, and why. This subject will help you develop and practice these abilities. This subject is a survey catering to diverse backgrounds. Students should not expect to become advanced practitioners in specific modeling techniques, but rather to gain familiarity with quantitative methods, and their role in policy. For alternative or advanced subjects, please see the teaching staff for suggestions.


We will cover five themes over the course of the semester, each covering an important concept in technically-focused policy analysis.

  1. Verification and Validation
    In model-building, verification and validation are important quality control procedures. Learn what they are, when to use them, and their limitations.
  2. Assessment Design and Evaluation
    What are best practices to structure a scientific assessment process? How do we know if scientific advice is effective or not? You’ll develop a toolbox of approaches that have worked to inform effective assessments in the past.
  3. Benefit-Cost Analysis
    A critical tool for evaluating policy. When is calculating a monetary value useful? How would you do it? How do you balance present and future values, and how can you quantify the unquantifiable?
  4. Systems Modeling
    Modeling for policy often involves complex, coupled systems. What are the principles involved in modeling these systems? What are some relevant techniques to understand this complexity?
  5. Integrating Interests and Politics
    How do we understand the influence of participants with different interests in a scientific assessment process? What values are brought to the table by scientists and engineers, and how can others’ values be taken into account?

What to Expect

The course is designed to be interactive: please come to class prepared and ready to engage in activities and discussions. Some questions have no “right” answers: be ready to develop and defend your own point of view while striving to understand the views of others–both important skills for future policy makers and advisors.

Topics and Readings

Readings will be posted on the course website and should be completed before class. You can expect several additional readings to be added for the class case studies: these will be chosen by your classmates.


Problem Sets (3 total, 10% each) 30
Policy Memo (30% memo, 10% presentation) 40
Class Case Study (15% briefing and presentation, 5% comments on another presentation) 20
Participation, including online quizzes (1% each) 10

There will be some opportunities for extra credit.

More Details

View the instructor’s version of the syllabus (PDF).