Executive Director's Column

Did Someone Move the Cheese?

Over the last couple of years, we have been hearing, sometimes loudly and sometimes quietly, that those agencies that fund psychological research are going to be doing business differently.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

Welcome to the fourth edition of the new, online Psychological Science Agenda - to all you intrepid readers of PSA, we thank you for logging on! To those of you who are reading this online for the first time, we welcome you and wish you many happy returns. Using electronic media to reach you in dynamic and new ways is an experiment for us all - and we look forward to your feedback and comments as we tailor production and try out new ways to bring you the best in psychological science.

This is the first PSA column I have written as acting Executive Director for Science. I am sure my prose will not be as flavorful as that of Kurt Salzinger, who has returned to Hofstra University to pursue his great loves of research and scholarship. I will aspire, though, to address issues as timely and important for psychological science as those he took up in this column.

I chose the title for this month's column not because of shifts in personnel at APA, but because of shifts in the policy fabric underlying our science. Over the last couple of years, we have been hearing, sometimes loudly and sometimes quietly, that those agencies that fund psychological research are going to be doing business differently. These messages are greeted with many reactions, ranging from enthusiasm to disdain, depending on the agency and topic. Two examples:

· There has been a sea change in funding directions and priorities for educational research.
· There is talk of a sea change in funding priorities at the National Institute of Mental Health.

How can we characterize these changes? In some areas where basic mono-discipline research has thrived (cognition, social psychology, learning, perception) agencies seem interested in moving the field toward larger, more interdisciplinary and explicitly targeted studies; in areas that have relied on large-scale, "real world" studies (e.g., education research) agencies seem interested in moving the studies to more rigorous designs; in areas where there has been a mix of basic and applied research, as at NIMH, leadership now appears more interested in giving priority to novel treatment applications than in maintaining a broad, balanced portfolio.

Now, so much change may make some of us nervous, and this is to be expected. Receiving grant funding is competitive enough on familiar territory; when the rules seem to change it escalates the uncertainty. And when the new rules seem to threaten to exclude whole subsets of psychological science research, we can get mighty cranky indeed.

We at APA have been following closely the recent pronouncements of new strategic planning at NIMH and the Department of Education. We have heard from our members - mostly from those who are concerned about these changes and who would like us to do something to stop them. We are committed to working as hard as we can to find, secure, and maintain opportunities for psychological science research, wherever we can. When members tell us that their research is threatened, we listen. We have also talked with the policy makers to be sure they know about and understand the value of psychological science research. It is clear their perspective is based on a firm commitment to change in their agency's or institute's piece of the research enterprise. So, for example, NIMH Director Tom Insel's emphasis on research that will support brain science and that has a direct bearing on "alleviating the burden of mental disease" is indeed intended to spark new areas of research and collaboration in psychological science. He wants more of us to do research that can impact people suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, autism or bipolar disorder. If it means funding less basic research on cognition, social processes or personality, that is a price he is willing to pay. Similarly, with the goal of discovering effective interventions for students, the Institute of Education Sciences' (IES) Russ Whitehurst's emphasis on randomized controlled trials is indeed intended to alter the landscape of the education research field so that there is more experimental and less qualitative research done in the schools.

Change itself is not necessarily bad, although when it impinges on our discipline's breadth, strengths and traditions, we need to sit up, pay attention, and respond. What are the sorts of things that we at APA do? First, we learn from you, our science constituency, about the likely impact of any change. Our mutual goals are to assure that each of the many kinds of research we do in psychology has a home and sources of support.

Of course, we do more - we actively trumpet our discipline's breadth, contributions, and need for "investigator independence" for the best science to be done. We stress the value and importance of high quality research of all stripes, of the importance of basic research to the vitality of application, and the dangers of defining "acceptability" or "relevance" so narrowly that large portions of an active research tradition have no home.

This is no simple task. We need to muster strong arguments and good data. We can reiterate to NIMH, that their authorization explicitly specifies a broad research program that includes "…the promotion of mental health, and the study of the psychological, social and legal factors that influence behavior" in addition to treatment for mental disease. If we point out that this provides a mandate to fund those areas of cognitive, social, developmental and learning research that seem too "basic" to be directly applicable to the "alleviation of mental disease", we must come to the table armed with examples of basic research findings that have indeed made a difference in people's lives. If we point out to the IES that the complex world of the schoolroom sometimes precludes purely experimental designs, we need to come to the table with strong examples of high caliber non-experimental data that allow us to draw sound conclusions that will be useful to policy makers.

In addition to talking with you and to championing psychological research, we must continue to facilitate dialog with policymakers to inform their decision-making. We need to understand proposed changes, to make our science's concerns known, and to consider how to manage change and to benefit from it. As an example, how have we responded to proposed changes at NIMH? We have encouraged conversation by talking with Director Tom Insel about the cultural importance of basic research, by asking him to speak directly to you at convention activities and through interviews and other coverage in the Monitor. We have worked with others to make discussion about priorities and portfolios be as open and public within the science community as possible. And we have tried to ensure that psychological researchers, both basic and applied, are well represented in advisory and review groups (e.g., by actively and persistently recommending your names for consideration).

Determining how to get the best answers to pressing social problems is not always so straightforward. There is an uneasy relationship between those who want immediate accountability for research dollars and fast solutions and those who believe that the key to lasting solutions lies in broad support for research, from basic to applied. There are many opinions on appropriate methodology, from the rigor of experimental control in the lab to application of some systematic control in everyday observational settings. At APA we try to embrace the whole gamut as "our" research constituency. Our central job is to ensure that all psychological research, from basic to applied, from experimental to qualitative, has appropriate and multiple homes within the federal research infrastructure. Our success depends not only on how well we can relate the relevance and value of psychological research to the goals of agency leaders and policy-makers, but also on how well we can adapt our messages and strategies in times of uncertainty. We invite you to join us in our efforts to and share your successes and challenges with us.