Feature

If a scientist could create the perfect job, it might look like this: Gather a group of talented peers, have lengthy discussions about significant issues and come to unbiased conclusions that serve the nation's best interests.

Give or take a few real-world hitches, that's exactly what psychologists are doing as panelists with the National Research Council (NRC), an independent entity that advises the federal government and private groups on the science of public policy issues.

NRC panels typically last from one to three years and usually involve 10 to 20 experts. There are roughly 600 panels going on each year on a broad array of topics, from the latest cognitive research on human aging to designing weapons that are easier for soldiers to carry.

The NRC has several features that make it unique in the political hotbed of Washington, D.C., comments psychologist Brian Smedley, PhD, senior program officer at the Institute of Medicine (IOM), one of the branches that forms The National Academies. First, the NRC is not a government agency, and is exempted by Congress from political involvement.

"There are so many bodies that are partisan in one way or another, so many think tanks on the right or left, that it's difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff," Smedley says. "We need a place where Congress can get good, sound, impartial scientific information. We hope the NRC fills that role."

To this end, all NRC panels are interdisciplinary and try to involve some experts who disagree. Most panel meetings are open to the public, except for discussions of conclusions and recommendations. Panels release reports on their work once they've reached consensus and put the reports through internal and external review. From repetitive strain injury at the workplace to air traffic safety, the panels weigh in on current issues and sometimes produce significant change.

A unique role

On one recent NRC panel, for example, members grappled with the topic of how people learn--often a far cry from how they're taught, says John Bransford, PhD, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University's Learning Technology Center, who co-chaired the panel.

In essence, people have far more potential than current educational methods allow or encourage, the panel found.

"The school system was originally based on a model of efficiency, and not on a model of how people optimally learn," Bransford says. "It was basically created to fit an assembly-line model where teachers inserted knowledge and skills as students moved along in the grades. It was assumed that only a select few--the future bosses--needed the skills to think and invent creatively.

"But today, even the front-line workers at Ford and Saturn and other companies have to be creative problem-solvers," he says.

One product from the panel is a book, "How People Learn," lauded by teachers, professors and researchers internationally.

"People are reading it and discovering that there is this exciting area called learning that is being actively researched," Bransford says.

He hopes the work will spur the redesign of educational systems to encourage people's creativity and curiosity, rather than simply their ability to dredge up memorized facts.

The scientists who volunteered on the panel convened in Washington, D.C., several times a year (the NRC has a paid staff, as well as standing committees of scientist volunteers). Most importantly, perhaps, "once someone funds a panel, they can't come in and lobby you about how they want this thing to come out," says Bransford.

Important privileges

All of these factors combine to make the climate at NRC safe for open, thorough and sometimes heated discussions, NRC psychologists report. And in some cases, it's fortunate indeed that the NRC has these nonpartisan privileges, they say.

An ongoing NRC panel on musculoskeletal injuries at the workplace, for instance, is conducting its work in a highly charged political atmosphere. Small-business concerns, hand surgeons and labor unions are pushing their opposing agendas on Capitol Hill--and those agendas don't necessarily square with science, says Richard Pew, PhD, a psychologist at BBN Technologies in Cambridge, Mass., who co-chaired a preliminary panel on the topic in 1998.

That two-day panel--which gathered 66 experts in ergonomics, biomechanics, epidemiology, the biology of tissue damage and workplace stress--concluded there was "very good scientific evidence that it is possible for people to stress their muscles in the workplace in a way that can cause physical injury," Pew says.

In the course of the preliminary panel's work, Pew recalls that one small-business lobby tried various tactics to sway the panel's conclusions.

"We were being challenged at every point about who we had on the panel, the way the study was run and who we invited as experts," Pew says.

When the current panel releases its report in January, its findings will likely be used by Congress and other government agencies to make policy decisions about the role of the workplace in musculoskeletal injury, says Anne Mavor, PhD, an experimental psychologist who is director of the NRC's Committee on Human Factors, a standing body at the NRC.

In the national interest

In addition to addressing more controversial issues, the NRC plays a key role in building knowledge on issues that affect the national interest, such as air traffic safety and military readiness. In fact, many psychologists who volunteer for NRC panels do so for the NRC's Human Factors Committee, which receives regular assignments from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Defense and military contractors.

One recent panel on air traffic safety, for instance, produced "two superb documents on automatic and free flight by the top experts in the field," says William C. Howell, PhD, a psychology professor at Arizona State University and chair of the NRC's Committee on Human Factors.

The experience of the group illustrates how the NRC process can produce not just sound scientific advice on a matter of practical importance to all Americans, but sometimes on unexpected topics as well, says Christopher Wickens, PhD, professor of psychology and head of the Aviation Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois's Institute of Aviation, and chair of the panel.

The idea for the panel first emerged in the early 1990s, when the FAA was considering overhauling its outdated computer systems. When it seemed the project would be too expensive to implement, the House Transportation Subcommittee and the Government Accounting Office asked the NRC to review the human factors aspects of the situation.

The panel decided to establish a baseline of information on air traffic control systems and to apply relevant domains of human factors psychology to them. It also discussed how automation should be implemented.

The group's first book, "Flight to the Future," discussed the basic psychology of air traffic control, including the cognitive strengths and limitations of air traffic controllers, how they're trained and selected and the tasks they're expected to do. Taking that information, the panel recommended ways to help controllers make the best use of computerized systems, such as involving users early in system design and training users before they use the technology.

The second report, "The Future of Air Traffic Control," was based on findings from panelists' visits to the field. The group examined existing and developing air traffic control systems, including those designed to give computer-automated help to air traffic controllers, and they considered the issue of "free flight"--a movement among pilots toward greater autonomy in choosing flight routes. They then described and classified automated systems and laid out guidelines on safe v. risky systems. The group concluded that using more ground-based computer automation would, for the time being, be safer than free flight. Relevant groups such as the FAA and the Airline Transportation Association seem to be heeding the panel's advice.

Another NRC panel is examining a problem facing all branches of the military: recruiting youth. The number of young people joining the military has dropped dramatically, says University of Minnesota professor Paul Sackett, PhD, an industrial organizational psychologist who's chairing the panel. The group will examine possible reasons for the slowdown, including the nature of advertising and recruiting messages delivered to youth; changing youth values; the impact of downsizing on the military's advertising budget; and growing enrollment in higher education.

An 'underutilized resource'

The energy and enthusiasm that drive the NRC panels make working for them worth the time, effort and lack of pay, psychologists say.

"It's like going back to grad school, except this time, you have 15 advisers instead of one," jokes Bransford.

However, psychologists also express concern about certain trends within and affecting the NRC. Howell notes a pattern he sees toward agencies and trade groups requesting only topics of immediate practical value, such as determining the worth of a particular weapons system.

"The NRC is probably the most underutilized resource the government has," Howell says. "It seems wise to me not just to squeeze out of these people the answers to specific questions, but also answers to bigger questions, such as what in this domain needs further study?"

To that end, Howell would like to see government agencies put more of their budgets into research and development, as they did a decade or two ago.

Wickens comments that because of its rigorous selection process, the NRC tends to choose mostly senior scientists who have vast expertise, but whose lives are so busy they might not have the time to devote to a panel that a younger scientist might.

In addition, the media and the public can overtake or put their own spin on a topic somewhere between the time a panel has finished its report and the report is finally released in public, Wickens says.

And, Sackett says, at first, working with colleagues from different disciplines can seem like you're speaking different languages. But that's also the aspect of the work he and others find most rewarding.

"It's a wonderfully broadening experience to encounter all the kinds of perspectives you do," he says. "In the end, you feel like this is work worth doing."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y. "There are so many bodies that are partisan in one way or another, so many think tanks on the right or left, that it's difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. We need a place where Congress can get good, sound, impartial scientific information. We hope the NRC fills that role." Brian SmedleyInstitute of Medicine