Scientific research is under increased scrutiny by the public and Congress. While scrutiny is always welcome, science also has been subjected to increased threat. Funding cuts and suppression of findings that do not serve political agendas are among the threats to all but a few areas of research. Psychological science has its unique challenges. The rigor and breadth of our research on the one hand and talk show pablum on the other confuse the public and policy-makers alike about what psychology is and does.
Research is routinely threatened at the level of individual projects or entire areas of study. Many of you will recognize what happened to a "friend" of mine. In the middle of various grants (the funding agency shall go nameless but rhymes with "M-eye-hen-eight-ch"), he received a call, "Alan (my "friend's" name) this is Chris, your program officer--your budget for this year has been cut 20 percent." My friend replies with a tone that should have been checked at the door, "Chris, this is Alan! Do you want me to omit the control group, the assessment or the data analyses?" Calls like these provide the scientific argument for subscribing to caller-ID.
Who advocates for psychological research at both the level of individual grants, broad areas of studies, and/or for our field overall? The government relations staff in APA's Science Directorate address the full range of issues of concern to researchers. Consider an uncontrolled anecdotal case study.
On a spring day last year, APA staff learned that amendments to the National Science Foundation reauthorization bill before Congress would defund several grants, i.e., withdraw and shut down ongoing grants that had traversed the peer-review process. Two of the projects involved psychologists. Government relations work began immediately that morning, and before lunch the two psychologists provided lay summaries of their work. By lunch time, this information was edited at APA and transmitted to congressional leaders. At the same time, APA went to several listservs to note that the peer-review process was being pre-empted and encouraged other disciplines to get involved. A few thousand messages for help went out. APA members were mobilized to call their congressional delegations (since all House members could vote on the bill) and to target the representatives who authored the amendments and traditional science champions in the House. Over 200 calls came into Congress urging a "no" vote on the amendment. Also, APA armed the congressman leading the House floor debate on the bill with pertinent information. On the floor that evening, that congressman made the case eloquently to his peers, the vote was taken, the amendments were defeated and the grants were no longer in jeopardy. Within approximately 12 hours, an APA swat team mobilized an effort that drew on targeted individuals, other organizations, congressional staff, grass-roots support from many psychologists, and more.
As significant, albeit less dramatic, are the day-to-day activities to help psychological research flourish. A few examples include:
Developing and disseminating to congressional committees a research agenda for psychology and related sciences in support of homeland security after 9/11.
Crafting legislation leading to the creation of agencies in which psychological research plays a prominent role (e.g., the Office of Research on Women's Health, the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, the Office of AIDS Research).
Providing ongoing educational briefings on Capitol Hill to highlight critical themes (e.g., prevention, drug abuse, gene-environment interactions).
Advocating for psychological research within the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense (e.g., in relation to the needs of deployed and returning servicemen and women and their families).
Conveying the special relevance of psychological science on critical issues before policy-makers (e.g., counter-terrorism research, educational policies, American competitiveness).
Working with other directorates of APA (Public Interest and Education) to increase funding for recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities in science.
Training psychological scientists to be effective advocates (e.g., in workshops and direct contact with congressional leaders).
APA has a dream team of experts that is nimble and can move into action as needed with Congress, funding agencies and other organizations. Psychological science can contribute to the great challenges of society. But without strong advocacy, this fact is only apparent to us. APA is able to utilize its heft to help all areas of psychological research, convey the relevance of basic and applied science and serve as an insurance policy of sorts against external calamities that threaten the discipline.