Public Policy Update

As Congress returns from its August recess and prepares for a brief but intense legislative period before the November elections, there will be opportunities for psychologists to participate in the policy arena through APA's grassroots advocacy efforts.

But what are grassroots efforts? The popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia--a compilation of information from individual laypeople--defines "grassroots" as a political movement "for individual constituents of a community to voice their ideas and opinions...through a bottom-up approach with voters demanding change, rather than existing political leaders directing the process in a 'top-down' fashion."

Here in Washington, D.C., nonprofit organizations of all kinds use the phrase "grassroots advocacy" to characterize a range of activities by large groups interested in specific issues and legislation that come before Congress. Within APA, and the Science Policy Office (SPO) specifically, grassroots advocacy is one component of a larger, strategic approach to accomplishing our goals: enhancing federal funding and infrastructure for psychological science, sharing results of research with policy-makers and training APA members to advocate for their science.

APA's grassroots efforts for science

SPO staff serve as liaisons between the Science Directorate and the legislative and executive branches--i.e., Congress and the federal science mission agencies. On behalf of psychological science, we weigh in with policy-makers on legislation and work with agency staff on research infrastructure and programming issues. Some of the congressional work is what we consider bread-and-butter annual legislation with direct relevance for psychologists, such as the appropriations bills that provide yearly funds to the science agencies. Other bills come up less regularly but clearly demand attention from APA, such as legislation reauthorizing the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which sets policy and programmatic guidelines affecting all of the institutes and the sciences they support.

In any given year or congressional session (which lasts two years), more specialized pieces of legislation also emerge that have repercussions for scientific psychology or could incorporate the results of psychological research in some important way.

In all of these cases, we look for points of access--opportunities to participate in the debate on important issues, at optimal times and in the most effective ways. Our advocacy takes many forms, from capitalizing on established relationships with individual members of Congress and their staffs, to leveraging the power of external science coalitions in which we are involved, to involving APA members in congressional hearings, briefings, exhibits and meetings. Throughout the year we bring in psychologists to testify before congressional committees, to brief members of Congress and their staffers on psychologically relevant topics, to present their cutting-edge, federally funded research on Capitol Hill, and to meet with their congressional delegations when research expertise can and should have an impact on policy decisions.

But usually we use the term grassroots advocacy much more specifically to describe our outreach to APA members through e-mail action alerts. These e-mails typically urge psychologists to call and e-mail their members of Congress with a particular message about a bill being considered in committee or coming up for a vote on the Senate or House floor. We aim to provide APA members with the important facts, rationale and actual phone or e-mail language they need to take action in what is frequently an extremely short time frame: It may seem that Congress moves slowly, but when they do take up bills, sometimes we have only hours to react. Often we send these action alerts to APA members in certain states or districts because those congressional representatives happen to sit on the committee drafting the legislation, or to members of divisions with recognized expertise and interest in the legislative issue.

Sign up for the PPO e-mail action alerts at APA Public Policy.

A case study in science advocacy

One recent example of SPO activating APA's grassroots involved a key issue for psychological scientists: maintaining adequate support for research within federal agencies. APA's SPO staff had been aware of possible threats to psychological research from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), new chair of the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Science and Space, ever since she gave a speech in Texas earlier this year decrying National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for social and behavioral science. APA Executive Director for Science Steve Breckler, PhD, and I met with her staff immediately after the speech was publicized to reinforce both the importance of NSF's support for all sciences and the unique contributions of psychological science to a range of national challenges.

Several months later, the situation intensified when Hutchison's subcommittee held a hearing on NSF's fiscal year 2007 budget request, research priorities, current plans and activities, and its support for the American Competitiveness Initiative and related activities. Some members of the subcommittee were clearly opposed to NSF using any increase in its budget for the support of social or behavioral science, and some even questioned whether NSF should be supporting social and behavioral science at all.

Within a week, SPO learned from congressional staff that Hutchison planned to introduce an amendment to a bill being drafted in the full Commerce Committee focusing on increasing America's competitiveness and innovation (a hot topic this year on Capitol Hill and in the White House). The amendment would instruct NSF not only to assess the degree to which grant proposals contribute to the enhancement of physical science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but also to give priority to them largely to the exclusion of other kinds of science.

The next day, SPO issued a targeted action alert to APA members, asking that those with key representation on the Commerce Committee urge their senators to oppose Hutchison's amendment and support an alternative amendment by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). Language in the alternative amendment stated that prioritizing certain areas of research for additional funding would not "restrict or bias the grant selection process against funding other areas of research deemed by [NSF] to be consistent with its mandate, nor to change the core mission" of NSF.

More than 200 APA members immediately called their senators, resulting in half of the full Commerce Committee receiving calls from psychologist-constituents within 24 hours. APA members from academia to private practice acted quickly, with one psychologist from a practice setting in Maine noting that he was inspired to call in part because "practicing clinicians stand on the shoulders of behavioral scientists."

The following day, we heard from Senate staff that a compromise amendment had been drafted that clarified that in giving priority to some fields of science, no bias or restrictions could be placed on any other fields within the agency's mission. Clearly APA's grassroots made an impact on the Hill, and although this legislative victory does not ensure the continued safety of behavioral and social science research programs at NSF, it does highlight the power of psychologists speaking out strongly and with one voice on behalf of our science.

Heather O'Beirne Kelly, PhD, is the senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Science Policy Office.