Feature

When the Sept. 11 tragedy rocked the nation, behavioral researchers across the country asked themselves a similar question: We've got considerable knowledge to help the public and officials handle crises, but how do we pull it together and disseminate it to the public and policy-makers?

It's a tricky question. At least that's what members of the Forum on Research Management (FORM) found when they gathered on Nov. 29 to discuss what the behavioral research community has already done to respond to the tragedy, and what still needs to be done. (FORM is a committee of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, which includes 17 member organizations involved in psychological research, among them APA and the American Educational Research Association.)

At the meeting, speakers offered their perspectives on this tension between response quality and timeliness, and FORM members discussed potential solutions. Topping their agenda were concerns about the need to quickly launch studies after a disaster; the need to communicate how behavioral research helps in such areas as emergency coordination, government decision-making and public coping; and the need to take specific steps to help the nation recover.

"The events of Sept. 11 were so cataclysmic and unprecedented that it warrants us taking a look at the role of behavioral sciences in a war with terrorism," said Howard Egeth, PhD, moderator and federation vice president, as the discussions kicked off.

Getting the research out

On considering that role, forum members noted a need for psychologists to distribute their research findings through the right channels. For example, they pointed out that psychology already has much to contribute to:

  • Emergency personnel. Here human factors researchers such as psychologist Gerald Krueger, PhD, president of APA's Div. 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering), have been uncovering ways to help emergency workers move quickly and identify one another when wearing chemical protective clothing. Krueger's team is also working to put better technology in the hands of emergency workers who need help locating and treating the injured. And he wants to see psychologists work on ways to expedite patient processing in hospitals during disasters and public health scares, such as the anthrax panic.

  • Government. Areas where psychologists can aid government include better trucking security and X-ray inspection of luggage and improved communication among agencies in emergencies. Psychologists can also improve government officials' communication about public health risk, said Krueger, noting federal officials' misstatements abut anthrax. "They need to learn," he said, "to be able to say, 'We really don't know the answer to that, but we're working on it, and this is what we're doing about it,' to give confidence to the general population." Other speakers noted how social psychology can help government officials craft messages about terrorism threats.

  • The public. Forum members repeatedly pointed out what psychologists know about managing stress, handling trauma and recovering after disasters. For example, National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder researchers Daniel King, PhD, and Lynda King, PhD, noted their finding that 15 percent of male Vietnam War veterans have the disorder, which means that 85 percent don't. "So obviously there is more to the story of trauma than psychopathology," said Lynda King. "We need to kind of turn it around and learn more about the recovery process and making meaning out of something that is very traumatic." Psychologists are learning, and still need to learn, a great deal about "the natural course of symptomatology post-trauma," added Daniel King.

Responding fast with research

An obstacle to conducting such post-trauma studies, however, is the difficulty of securing rapid funding after a disaster such as Sept. 11. "NIH is relatively ill-equipped oftentimes to respond rapidly to research opportunities like Sept. 11, which I think is a real problem," said speaker Robert Croyle, PhD, associate director for behavioral research at the National Cancer Institute.

And in Croyle's view, launching quick studies that recruit participants on the Internet is no solution. "It's great that the investigator community is very responsive, but people are kind of winging it," said Croyle. "They're doing it on their own with limited funds and just based on Xeroxing lots of questionnaires and convenience samples."

Rather than limiting themselves in this way, Croyle suggested that researchers could instead redirect new or ongoing longitudinal research. For example, he said, referring to his own institute's research, a research group might be conducting a study on women's concerns about breast-cancer risk and could now look at whether terrorism worries pre-empt those concerns.

Other options for researchers include tapping NIH's rapid supplements to already funded grants or trying such programs as the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Small Grants for Exploratory Research. Those funds can be used for emergency research, and the agency can disburse them in a matter of days, said Steven Breckler, PhD, director of the Social Psychology Program at NSF.

Although funding opportunities also exist at such federal agencies as the Office of Naval Research and the Federal Aviation Administration, the speakers noted that, across funding organizations, post-disaster research tends to be haphazard. Brian Wilcox, PhD, director of the University of Nebraska's Center on Children, Families, and the Law, suggested that there ought to be a fast-responding mechanism to coordinate disaster research across private and public agencies.

In response, Kurt Salzinger, PhD, APA's executive director for science, raised the possibility that APA could convene a "Disaster Research Network" to do such coordination. While agreeing in principle with Salzinger's suggestion, Israel Lederhendler, PhD, chief of the Basic Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, said such a network would need to be "broader than just APA" and include participation and funding from a range of military, government and emergency-response groups.

Putting research into action

In addition to research on disaster recovery, ongoing research is needed on disaster prevention, speakers said. Of course, noted NSF's Breckler, there is much that psychological science "can already tell us" about that. Relating to terrorism, for example, social psychology offers insight into stereotyping and "why young kids and others in the world would identify with terrorists."

What's more, he said, "psychological science will miss the boat if it doesn't step forward with this information to inform policy." How can it be sure it doesn't miss that boat? Forming a research network, as suggested by APA's Salzinger, is one strategy. Building stronger ties with legislators on Capitol Hill and holding a large national conference that brings together researchers, policy-makers and professional organizations are others.

Meanwhile, Russell Jones, PhD, psychology professor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, suggested action steps for helping children and families recover from trauma. One was teaching safety skills in case of future attacks. Another was forging stronger partnerships with agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as NIH.

"Obviously," said Jones, "what happened on Sept. 11 was very dark for our nation and worldwide but...I think it will provide an opportunity to apply some of our good science in terms of helping meet the needs of many individuals."