Science Leadership Conference

With health-care reform dominating the political conversation on Capitol Hill, legislators have been bombarded with messages from numerous health-related disciplines. As part of its advocacy efforts to ensure psychology’s voice gets heard above the din, APA hosted its fifth annual Science Leadership Conference Nov. 14–16 in Washington, D.C.

More than 125 psychologists, advocates and government officials gathered to discuss new ways psychological science and treatment can be incorporated into federally funded research programs. The staff of APA’s Science Government Relations Office and a grassroots organizing consultant talked to the audience about legislative goals that would benefit psychology, as well as how best to present their views to lawmakers.

The attendees then met with congressional staff to press for:

  • Increased funding for the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s largest funder of psychological research.

  • Preserving the integrity of the peer-review system in deciding which research deserves funding.

  • Including psychological interventions within federal initiatives for comparative effectiveness research.

Before the psychologists went to Capitol Hill, leaders of several federal agencies talked with the conference attendees about the ways psychology could play a greater role in their agencies’ research plans.

For instance, Robert Croyle, PhD, director of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute, said there’s a big behavioral component to cancer.

“The role of prevention and lifestyle is becoming widely acknowledged and appreciated” in cancer research and in health-care reform more generally, Croyle said.

Psychologists have already played a direct role in developing laws that require warning labels on tobacco products and restrictions on tobacco advertising, he noted. In the future, Croyle predicts psychologists will be heavily involved in designing a safe and user-friendly health technology infrastructure.

Rodney Hammond, PhD, who directs the Division of Violence Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed out psychologists’ contributions to violence prevention. Their work is particularly critical when it comes to children’s injuries. “Early childhood experiences affect brain development and long-term health and well-being,” Hammond said.

Because children are at the highest risk for maltreatment during the first six months of life, the CDC wants to make sure there are effective preventive measures and resources in place. Since psychologists are experts at these kinds of interventions, the CDC is looking to fund their research.

In terms of treatment research, Philip Wang, MD, DrPH, deputy director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said that currently, the country spends about 16 percent of its GDP on health care and mental health services, but it’s not necessarily getting its money’s worth. For example, there have been no reductions in the prevalence of mental health disorders over time, even though people increasingly use mental health services, he said.

Wang said that indicates our mental health-care system doesn’t systematically use the best practices available. In some cases, that’s an issue of translating research to practice. In the case of panic disorder, “the median time it takes [for research to become an established treatment] is a decade,” Wang said. “It’s up to 30 years for some other disorders.”

In addition, he said, Medicaid and Medicare directors often don’t know which treatments work best, so a number of ineffective treatments become established practices. “New and unproven treatments are often rapidly adopted,” Wang said.

But recognizing that as academics is one thing, the speakers stressed. Getting lawmakers to understand these and other complex health issues is another. If you want legislators to pay attention and understand your message, you need to make it as accessible and concise as possible, Croyle said.

“You need to [stress that] our research is applicable and is disseminated, so Congress doesn’t think we’re just a bunch of eggheads sitting around in our offices, going to meetings and talking only to each other,” he said.

Researchers also need to be able to summarize their findings in just a few sentences, he added. Asking busy staffers to read your well-cited 40-page research paper will only get you confused looks.