Self-Defense for the Psychological Scientist
The APA Science Directorate encourages every psychological scientist to take steps now, not only to prepare for possible attacks on your research, but as part of your responsibility to educate people about psychological science broadly and why it deserves support from the American taxpayer.
If you're interested in ordering the printed version of the pamphlet please contact the Science Directorate.
It’s only fair that if federal funds paid for your research, you should be able to explain it to the public. This will be useful if your work is ever attacked, but will also help you communicate proactively to certain audiences like the media, potential funders, patient populations, or scientists from other disciplines.
Most psychologists welcome the opportunity to have their research findings publicized in print or broadcast media, and often, these are excellent avenues to highlight psychology's contributions to society. Sometimes, however, scientists may find that their research has been either misunderstood or mischaracterized by the media, the public, or policymakers in ways that leave them defending, rather than explaining, their findings.
Each year, thousands of psychological scientists compete for and receive millions of dollars of federal funding for their research projects. Most of these scientists will pursue their scientific proposals with little interference, or even interest, from the public at large. However, as federal research budgets are tightening, policymakers are looking more closely at the return on the multibillion dollar federal investments in basic and applied research. In the past few years, there have even been a number of Congressional attempts to rescind funding for specific peer-reviewed, behavioral research grants. Some attacks have been primarily ideological, while others have been economic in origin. While psychological scientists may expect to receive harsh critiques from peer reviewers or other scientists at some point in their careers, responding to critical questions and/or accusations from Members of Congress, the media, or the public often requires a different level of preparation.
The good news is that these instances are still quite rare, and there are some simple, yet effective, steps you can take to prepare not only for this type of public relations crisis, but for any inquiries into your research.
While scientists have learned to put their faith and trust in the peer review process to fund only research of the highest quality, there is a significant lack of understanding of this process outside the scientific community. Therefore, you will need to be prepared to explain the value of your research in other ways. Should this ever be necessary, the following tips will help:
- Be aware that the grant application abstract from your research is accessible to and searchable by the public and Congress and should describe your research in lay terms.
- Create an easy-to-understand, one-page summary of your research that illustrates why it is important to the public.
- Find out who represents you in Congress by visiting capwiz.com/apapolicy/home/.
- Establish a relationship with your Congressional offices by letting them know when you receive federal funding for research. Take the opportunity to thank them for supporting scientific research agencies and the peer review process. If appropriate, invite your Members of Congress to tour your lab or meet with your department.
- Establish a relationship with your university’s public and legislative affairs office.
- Request media training from your university.
- Support your fellow researchers.
- Stay abreast of the political climate and federal science policy issues. One way to do this is to subscribe to APA’s Science Policy Insider News.
All hope is not lost if you suddenly find your research under attack. What can you do if a negative spotlight turns on you and your work?
- Contact the APA Science Government Relations Office for guidance. This is what we are here for!
- Contact your university's public relations office.
- Contact your program officer or funding agency officials and find out if they have prepared any response.
- Request media training or guidance from your university before answering or returning calls from the media.
- Prepare a one page description of your research, its links to the funding agency's mission, and its connection to public health or other relevant outcomes. Make sure your funding agency has a copy.
How to Work With the Media: Interview Preparation for the Psychologist is provided by the APA Public and Member Communications Office.
The Coalition to Protect Research, co-chaired by APA, works to educate Congress about the importance of peer review as a basis for judging the merit of research.