Feature

Psychologists are uniquely positioned to influence policy at the federal level, says psychologist G. Reid Lyon, PhD, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Yet too often, he argues, psychologists squander that opportunity, failing to clearly communicate their knowledge about social problems and ideas for solutions.

Lyon, who directs the agency's extramural branch that includes research programs in developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral pediatrics, reading, human learning and learning disorders, language development and bilingualism and biliteracy, has long worked with state and federal policy-makers to develop and implement education and early childhood programs.

Recently, Lyon spoke with the Monitor about his role, as well as the role of psychology, in shaping science policy in the current administration.

Q: You and the NICHD have been significantly involved in providing President Bush and the Congress with research findings relevant to child development and other educational issues. What is the context for your interactions with federal policy-makers?

A: As governor of Texas, George W. Bush was alarmed at the number of children in Texas who were not learning to read and asked several NICHD researchers, including myself, to advise him on how Texas could best translate research on the prevention and remediation of reading failure into kindergarten and elementary classrooms.

Over the next several years, our work with his staff and educational leadership helped many Texas schools implement reading programs based on the converging scientific evidence. This led to a significant decrease in the number of kids having difficulties--particularly minority students and children in poverty. This translation of scientific research to practice and its positive impact on Texas children reinforced the governor's notion that educational practices and policies must be based on the best scientific evidence. He has carried that commitment forward into his presidency, and NICHD continues to provide input on these issues frequently.

Q: In the current administration, what specific activities have you participated in?

A: I was asked to help identify and recruit assistant secretaries for several offices in the Department of Education, including the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

President Bush and Education Secretary Rod Paige wanted to ensure that the programs and policies emanating from these offices were based on high-quality scientific research rather than solely on traditional political considerations. As a result, these positions will be filled by psychologists and other specialists in early childhood and education who have strong research and content backgrounds and a commitment to evidence-based programs and policies, as well as superior leadership and management capabilities.

In addition, I was asked to work with the Department of Education's legislative and policy staff and House and Senate education committee staff to ensure that reading programs provided through the proposed Elementary and Secondary Education Act legislation be based on converging scientific evidence. This represents a major culture shift in the development of education legislation.

Q: What other aspects of federal policy have you been involved in?

A: The president has also urged NICHD to help identify and develop evidence-based integrated strategies for developing young children's social competencies, emotional and physical health, and cognitive, language and early reading skills, all of which are necessary for school success. We are now in the process of launching a multimillion-dollar per year early childhood initiative, beginning in fiscal year 2002, that will help achieve this goal. For the first time, we are developing a significant partnership across agencies to figure out what we know about how best to help kids become ready for school, what we don't know and how to fill those gaps.

We have also been asked to help develop strategies for linking federal efforts designed to enhance development of social, emotional, cognitive and academic abilities in children from birth onward, to provide a seamless continuum of support for youngsters at risk for school failure. This will be a major challenge, given the historic lack of coordination across federal programs and the lack of emphasis on proven programmatic effectiveness.

Q: Some in the scientific community have expressed concern that President Bush has paid too little heed to science in making policy decisions. How is this complaint reconciled with your own experience?

A: I can only speak from my experience, which is that the president has a very serious commitment to the scientific development, evaluation and implementation of evidence-based programs for students from preschool through high school. He has demonstrated a tremendous respect for the power of the scientific method and the critical need for trustworthy evidence in guiding instructional interactions with students.

Indeed, his goal that federal funds be provided only for the most effective reading and early childhood programs speaks to this directly.

Q: What role can psychologists play in helping shape science policy?

A: Psychology is in a unique position because the range of issues that psychologists address reflect the everyday concerns of the country. As a field, we need to take that seriously and focus systematic research efforts on how to solve problems, not just describe them. Psychologists should be playing a major role in advising the executive and legislative branches about practical ways to apply basic science advances to improving human health, development, education and behavior.

Q: What determines whether policy-makers actually use scientific evidence to frame policy issues?

A: In my experience, policy-makers want to solve problems and they want to trust the solutions recommended by those advising them. To do this, they need the most scientifically solid information available about the scope of the problem, the reasons why it exists and what can be done about it. That information must be presented with clarity and must link our understanding of the problem with specific interventions that are effective in eliminating or at least relieving the problem. In developmental and educational psychology, for instance, we haven't done this well. Description has been strong, but our understanding of causation and how we can influence complex causal events to make people's lives better is lousy. Policy-makers tell me that getting and using good advice from psychologists is difficult because we not only use too much jargon but we have a tendency to polarize and debate issues ad nauseum. This has certainly been the case in the nature versus nurture debates, in early childhood education and Head Start, and in the reading area. And if you look at this concern honestly, it is the case that frequently psychologists stake out philosophical positions without sufficient scientific evidence and promote or defend positions on the basis of appeals to authority, rather than objective evidence. This erodes trust in what we say and interferes with our ability to communicate clear policy recommendations.

Q: How can psychology overcome those tendencies?

A: Everything starts with training and is honed through the right kinds of experience. Our graduate students, postdocs and young professors already know that the problems that face us are extremely complex--what is sometimes not well understood is that the solutions to those problems are going to mirror that complexity. In order to develop and articulate effective solutions, psychologists need to rely on a variety of informed perspectives and have a robust multidisciplinary foundation--and overcome allegiances to philosophical "turf." After all, policy is really the fruition of what we know--it's what we're responsible for, because if in fact we're trying to change behavior, it's through policy that that will translate into actual practice.