Science Public Policy News

A Rallying Cry for Psychological Science

Concerns Surround Funding for Scientific Research

By Geoff Mumford

Periodically a phenomenon emerges in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding mid-Atlantic states in the form of the 17-year cicada. A few days of loud partying is the reward for a lonely grub that's spent most of its life underground sucking on root sap. Soon we'll be sweeping up exoskeletons and sleeping with earplugs, marveling (or complaining) about the surprising cycles of science and nature. Hopefully, we'll also see the demise of a phase of another, perhaps not so natural, cycle--that of lawmakers periodically politicizing science and threatening the integrity of the peer-review process. We could certainly more likely realize that goal if psychologists sign a new Web petition endorsing a set of time-honored scientific principles.

Indeed, much about science and science policy is cyclical, if less predictable than cicadas. Ever since George Washington appointed a commission to investigate the cause of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, questions have been raised about how presidents get their advice and what they do with it. During the 19th and 20th centuries, as the United States became a leader in science and technology, that advice became more scientific and technical in nature, as a matter of course. Controversy was bound to follow, and while concerns about the politicization of science are not unique to the current administration, we are once again in an era where such ethical questions are being raised.

The most recent example of concerns about such politicization comes in a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a pro-environmental nonprofit headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., with a title that leaves little to the imagination: "Scientific Integrity in Policy Making: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science." The report includes a range of issues that have received wide coverage in both the scientific and lay press, from public health (e.g., the relationship between abortion and breast cancer) to climate change (e.g., Environmental Protection Agency data on global warming). Other issues of concern cited are abstinence-only education, lead poisoning prevention and workplace safety. In a nod to APA's vanguard coverage of the issue, the UCS report also references the Monitor's coverage of William Miller's plight while being vetted for the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse.

Accompanying the report is a statement calling for the restoration of scientific integrity, endorsed by 20 Nobel laureates, 19 recipients of the National Medal of Science and other leaders within the research community. The UCS website encouraged other scientists to endorse the statement as well. However, although many psychological scientists agreed with the report and wanted to sign-on, initially those who self-identified as psychologists were told their discipline wasn't being counted. While this is not the first time psychology has been marginalized, it stings a little more coming on the heels of Dr. Daniel Kahneman's recent Nobel award "for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science." However, when science policy staff were alerted to this situation, we immediately contacted UCS urging them to reconsider. After some back and forth discussions that referenced classification schemes developed by the National Science Foundation (which naturally recognize psychology and its many sub disciplines as science), UCS acquiesced and realized its obligation to include psychologists. Meanwhile though your thick-skinned colleagues rallied in a number of ways. For example, the Psychologists for Social Responsibility developed their own statement about government threats to research integrity, and initiated a separate web-based petition drive.

It all began because scientific integrity was also threatened in 2003, when five peer-reviewed grants funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were targeted by an amendment offered by Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) on the House floor that sought to eliminate their funding. Following an uncomfortably close vote on what has been popularly referred to as the "Toomey Amendment," APA Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer Karen Studwell, J.D. and Angela Sharpe, deputy director of health policy at the Consortium of Social Science Associations, launched a new partnership, the Coalition to Protect Research (CPR).

As PSA readers know CPR has been very busy on Capitol Hill, having already sponsored a congressional briefing on the public health implications of sexual health research, featuring psychological researchers Thomas Coates and Janet Shibley Hyde. In addition, CPR members are continuing to meet with congressional staff to convey the importance of the peer-review process and a comprehensive NIH research portfolio.

While these efforts to educate members of Congress about the importance of the peer review process generally and sexual behavior research, in particular, appear to be having the intended effect, there is no guarantee similar amendments won't be offered on appropriations bills later this year. However, any future efforts will require a new champion as Pat Toomey lost his bid to unseat Senator Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania primary race and decided not to run for re-election to the House of Representatives. Whether or not congress takes up the issue again in this session, CPR members wanted to provide a broader opportunity for scientists, both within and outside the beltway, to register their concern on this issue. So CPR, working with APA's Management Information Systems group, developed its own Web-based petition. The "Petition to the U.S. Congress to Support Scientific Integrity" highlights the value of the current biomedical and behavioral research enterprise and urges Congress to support: merit review of research proposals; a comprehensive research portfolio; using sound science to inform policy; and public participation in setting research priorities.

Importantly, the petition records signatories' zip codes to allow sorting of the database by voting district so that we can demonstrate support for these basic principles to your key elected officials. As this issue goes to press, the petition had garnered nearly 3000 signatures and we urge the PSA readership to join in endorsing it, too.

Soon there will be an additional chapter to this story. A Government Accounting Office investigation undertaken to examine the procedures used to vet the nominations of scientific advisers was scheduled for release by May 19. The 140-page draft has been described by a congressional staffer as more a compendium of best practices for the nomination and selection of scientific advisers than a compilation of failures. In any case, it will serve as a valuable reference by which this and future administrations can be judged, and it is available for viewing.

The report will be used as a primary source document in a broader study to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences beginning this summer. That study, "Science and Technology in the National Interest: Ensuring the Best Presidential and Advisory Committee Appointments" (Third edition), will be carried out by the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP) and will be chaired by former Congressman John Porter (R-Ill.), a revered advocate for biomedical and behavioral research on Capitol Hill.

This is a rewarding follow-up to APA's early leadership on this issue: In February of last year, APA Chief Executive Officer Norman Anderson--in his testimony before COSEPUP--joined former advisers to Presidents Richard M. Nixon, George Bush and Bill Clinton in calling for just such a study. Through efforts such as this one, we hope that the threats to science will enter dormancy along with the cicadas--and stay buried for even longer than 17 years.

APA's science policy staff will continue to monitor and report on these issues as warranted here and in our monthly e-newsletter SPIN [now APA Science Policy News].