Feature

Each month during his congressional fellowship in a senator's office, the legislative director would hand psychologist Brian L. Wilcox, PhD, a thick envelope stuffed with APA journal articles.

And he did exactly what his legislative director did with them: "I looked at them a couple of times and then started throwing them in the trash," Wilcox remembered. His job allowed no time to page through articles to find policy-relevant research.

"I will say that fortunately, things at APA have changed dramatically and for the better," said Wilcox, now director of the Center on Children, Families and the Law at the University of Nebraska, at APA's 2000 Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., Aug. 4­8. APA now knows that policy-makers are more likely to respond to a concise brief than a stack of journal articles.

As scientists, psychologists often lack an understanding of the needs and process of pubic policy, believing that once their research is completed their work is done. But panelists at an Aug. 5 conversation hour titled "Psychology goes public--disseminating science and influencing public policy" encouraged psychologists to help create psychologically sound pubic policy by rethinking how psychology communicates with policy-makers.

"We've really got two fundamentally different cultures," explained Wilcox.

For example, scientists often present study results in complicated tables of data, and, while such detail is important to psychologists, policy-makers lack the resources to translate such information into policy. They want concise explanations of scientific research--what something is, why and how it works and if it could help in their re-election.

Scientists also work on different schedules than politicians: While researchers are focused on the academic year and grant cycles, policy-makers work under election, legislative, appropriations and authorization cycles.

The panelists encouraged the scientists to recognize such disparities between science and policy-making and then to make their case in ways that take into account this knowledge.

"I try to understand what their reinforcers are, what drives their decision-making processes," Wilcox advised. "So I can see what it is that I'm not bringing them or what it is that I am bringing them that's problematic."

Scientists also need to try to understand the process by which policy is made and reshaped, an endeavor that is often stigmatized, Wilcox noted. In science, "Historically, there have been very few rewards for engagement in the policy process," he explained.

If psychologists want to be successful in making their case to Congress and the public, added David Stonner, PhD, of the National Science Foundation, "We need to appreciate the value of people who can popularize what we do and take it to the public and show them how important it is."