Science Directions

The question is not whether science and politics mix--they most certainly do--but how do they interact? How does a diverse organization like APA inform the political process with science? And what does APA do when political agendas threaten the scientific enterprise?

Answering these questions requires a look at the many ways that APA does policy work. First stop is APA's policy staff, who advocate on behalf of us all, following agendas set by APA's Council of Representatives. Some advocacy addresses issues specific to psychologists, such as including psychology in federal education programs; prescription privileges; mental health parity; or nominations for prominent federal positions. Some is more general, such as increasing funding for agencies that support psychology research or commenting on the effects of proposed legislation on research.

But much of the advocacy that APA does, or is asked to do, is to provide objective scientific expertise about substantive topics--testing in schools, the death penalty for minors, end-of-life care issues, affirmative action and the like.

How does APA respond to such requests? As a large organization representing more than 150,000 people, it cannot address a political issue without some measure of consensus. In many cases this is provided by prior council resolutions, for example on poverty, child welfare or health. The advocacy that APA then provides articulates expert opinion. In this way science and political decision-making mix to develop public policy based on the best that science has to offer, including psychological research.

At other times the mix can be perilous, and we must focus on protecting science from the sometimes heavy and misguided hand of politics.

Protecting science

Another example: Last summer, as you may recall, an amendment attached to an appropriations bill proposed de-funding five National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded, peer reviewed projects. Although Congress has the authority to do this, it would require ignoring grant funding and decision-making mechanisms already in place, especially the gold standard of them all, peer review. What you may not recall is that this amendment, hotly debated on the floor of the House of Representatives, was defeated by only two votes. What was so controversial? Behavioral sexual health research (research on HIV/AIDS, sexual decision-making and populations engaged in high-risk sexual practices).

In a case like this, APA advocacy can and does play a crucial role. Whatever you personally think about sexual behavior and sexual health research, the issues at stake are the value of science for addressing societal issues, and the integrity and value of peer review and its status as the most rigorous mechanism to fund the best research (remember, peer review means duly constituted groups including scientific expertise and community input). This attempt by Congress to supplant that process with a vote based on one paragraph from a research abstract threw science smack into politics. APA jumped to the fore, and asked you, the members, to help educate Congress. Capitol Hill was besieged with letters on the issues of peer review and the value of sexual health research to public health.

Providing expertise

While this rapid response may have helped swing the vote to uphold NIH's decisions, the threats to scientific integrity and peer review are far from over. APA co-founded the Coalition to Protect Research with the Consortium of Social Science Associations and continues to work hard to educate policy-makers.

Another way that APA attempts to infuse policy with psychology expertise is to promote a strong voice at the table. APA routinely solicits names for nominations to serve on advisory groups and other panels responsible for the advice, decisions and funding that impact national policy and programs.

A recent success illustrates this. As you may know, the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the largest federal agency authorized since World War II. At first blush it looked as though the focus of this department would be on the technology side of science and technology--but Science Directorate and Science Public Policy staff organized constructive outreach. The first task was to educate policy-makers about the goods that the social and behavioral sciences can deliver to the anti-terrorism and security effort. The second was to make sure that psychology was at the table. The result? At least three psychologists now sit on advisory boards at the newly formed DHS.

The examples could continue. But the central point I would like to end with is that psychology and politics do mix--often in ways that are invisible to our members. The science and practice of psychology are better for these efforts, and our collective public policy is better for your presence at the policy-making table. That is a recipe worth keeping!