Public Policy Update

Each spring, APA's Public Policy Office testifies before Congress in support of funding for federal agencies that support psychological research. In the hodgepodge of 13 appropriations subcommittees, some agencies are lumped together that would seem to make strange bedfellows.

Last on the alphabetical list, and perhaps the most eclectic, is the so-called Veterans Affairs-Housing and Urban Development (VA-HUD) and Independent Agencies Subcommittee, where we find a surprising nexus of APA interests. In addition to veterans affairs, the subcommittee's jurisdiction covers, among other agencies, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Unfortunately, under any given subcommittee, all agency budgets are pitted against one another in a zero sum game. As a result, an extra cold winter forces federal programs like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), funded under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, into direct competition with basic research budgets at NSF.

In the House of Representatives, balancing those funding requests within the VA-HUD subcommittee is the unenviable job of 17 of your elected representatives. And although fellow academicians might assume that the value of research speaks for itself, making a memorable case often depends on timing and personal connections. That's why, in these unsettled times, APA's Public Policy Office was very fortunate to enlist Timothy Wilson, PhD, chair of psychology at the University of Virginia, to help us prepare and deliver this year's APA testimony. Not only is Wilson conducting topical research in social psychology, he also plays on the Charlottesville baseball team of his representative, Virgil Goode (R-Va.). That connection led Rep. Goode to remark, "I just want the committee to know that Dr. Wilson here has one hell of a baseball swing," at the beginning of his testimony. But beyond his prowess at homeplate, Wilson hit a home run by describing both his research and the unusual grant that supports it.

Anticipation of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (and the subsequent invasion) prompted an unprecedented level of debate about our foreign policy, both domestically and abroad. So, in his testimony, Wilson described the research he conducts via NSF's Small Grants for Exploratory Research Program (SGER). His research focuses on why U.S. citizens do or do not support military incursions into foreign states. SGER's dispensation of a timely grant award concerning U.S. attitudes in Iraq enabled Wilson to take advantage of a unique research opportunity that otherwise might have been lost. Hopefully, a more complete understanding of U.S. attitudes will provide better information on which to base future foreign-policy decisions.

Wilson used his own research to segue into two interrelated NSF-wide funding priorities for fiscal year 2004. The first, called "Human and Social Dynamics," is meant to explore interactions among society, its institutions and technology. Wilson highlighted the unique role psychological research can play before, during and after rapid societal change, using research on decision-making; risk and uncertainty; adaptation and resistance to new technologies; the evolution of society and its interaction with climate, geography and the environment; and enhancement of human performance. Wilson reminded the subcommittee of a second, related and ongoing NSF initiative designed to support successful educational reform and effective work force development. The Science of Learning Centers program will continue to serve as the foundation-wide centerpiece for the initiative, which is called "Learning for the 21st Century Workforce."

Time limits on oral testimony--which generally allow for only five minutes of fame--did not permit Wilson to elaborate on the important psychological and behavioral research supported by other NSF directorates and the VA and NASA. However, as always, those latter programs were detailed in written APA testimony submitted for the official subcommittee hearing record.

This "public witness" testimony is only the beginning of a long process that is intended to lead to the enactment of legislation to determine final appropriations for these agencies next fall. And while Public Policy Office staff will continue to be actively involved as congressional funding decisions evolve, we are indebted to science advocates like Wilson for the critical expertise they bring to the witness table and the time they devote to making their voices heard.


Geoffrey Mumford, PhD, is the director of science policy in APA's Public Policy Office.