Science Briefs

Psychologists to Capitol Hill - “Our Work Makes a Difference”

One of APA's science policy goals is to bring psychological scientists to Washington to educate policymakers about their research.

By Patricia Kobor

One of APA's science policy goals is to bring psychological scientists to Washington to educate policymakers about their research. APA makes opportunities for this type of teaching to happen, by sponsoring congressional briefings and letting members of Congress know about psychological experts and expertise. Psychologists were front and center in Washington at the end of May and early June, as multiple briefings sponsored and cosponsored by APA took place on Capitol Hill.

The week of May 23 began with an extraordinary event sponsored by the Decade of Behavior. APA Science Policy staffer Pat Kobor worked with the National Communication Association, Association of American Geographers, and American Political Science Association to showcase the 2005 Decade of Behavior Research Award winners in the study of democracy, one of the five themes of the Decade. The event was called "The State of Democracy: Engaging a Changing Citizenry. " Over 70 congressional staff and policymakers attended the symposium, including staff from the Department of Homeland Security, State Department and Library of Congress among others. APA fellow Judith Torney-Purta, of the University of Maryland, was honored for her work on the beliefs and attitudes of young people in the United States and abroad on democracy and civic involvement. Pointing out that young people in the U.S. received only mediocre scores on understanding the concepts and ideals of democracy, Dr. Torney-Purta called for more participatory experiences as part of the civic education of young people. Other scientists who gave award addresses were political scientists James Gibson, Washington University in St. Louis; David Epstein and Sharyn O'Halloran, Columbia University; geographer William A.V. Clark, University of California-Los Angeles; and communication scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson, University of Pennsylvania.

A highlight was the presentation of the Decade of Behavior Research Awards by Reps. Brian Baird (D-WA) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL). Rep. Baird, a psychologist, and Rep. Lipinski, a political scientist, made remarks about the importance of scholarship on democracy, and how important it is that social scientists bring their research forward to help inform policy. Howard Silver, of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, served as the able moderator, and Jessica Bryant, of the APA Science Directorate, explained the goals of the Decade of Behavior and its research awards. 

Two days later, APA cosponsored a congressional briefing, "Advancing Women in Science," with a number of organizations in coordination with the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues and the Congressional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Education Caucus. Given the recent controversy over remarks by Larry Summers, president of Harvard, the issue of women in science is in the news once again. The briefing focused on how to encourage more women to pursue careers in science. Psychologist Nora Newcombe, former Div. 7 President from Temple University, set the tone for an informative briefing. Speaking first, she summarized the cognitive science research on gender differences in learning, and was quickly able to dispel the myth that "girls can't learn math." By emphasizing that most data on gender differences only show small discrepancies at the very high levels of math ability, and that any patterns are not immutable, she brought the role of culture and the social environment to the fore of the debate.

Newcombe was joined by four other speakers representing different perspectives on how to encourage women to succeed in science, as well as seven members of Congress who came by to offer their support for this important issue. Congressional guests included Reps. Judy Biggert (R-IL), Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL), Mark Udall (D-CO), Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), Rush Holt (D-NJ), Hilda Solis (D-CA) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder also attended the briefing and was given many compliments for paving the way for other women members. It was the sharp eye of Science Policy staffer Karen Studwell that brought APA to this briefing as a cosponsor.

Psychologists Dianne Halpern, Claremont-McKenna College, and Virginia Valian, Hunter College, spoke at a 'sister' briefing on "Women in Science" held on the Senate side of the Capitol on June 6, 2005. Halpern emphasized that women are well-represented in the life sciences, but constitute less than thirty percent of the graduates in fields of math, computer science, or engineering. Valian discussed how unconscious bias impacts the perception of competence of women in male-dominated fields and how this may affect women's opportunities for promotions or tenure in the academic sciences.

Another crowd gathered for APA's May 26 briefing on "Psychology in Service to America's Military Personnel, Veterans and Their Families," co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY). The standing-room-only audience included 86 people representing 17 different Senate offices; 10 House offices; three Senate Committees; senior Department of Defense offices related to health, reserves and disability issues; the Veterans Administration (VA), Public Health Service and various military/veterans, disability and mental health nonprofits. U.S. Reps. Ted Strickland (D-OH), Brian Baird (D-WA) and Rob Simmons (R-CT) spoke briefly. Antonette Zeiss (Director of Training, Psychology Service, VA Palo Alto Healthcare System) discussed cutting-edge models of VA internship training designed to meet the needs of returning military personnel; Terence Keane (Associate Chief of Staff for Research & Development, VA Boston Healthcare System) presented the most up-to-date research in the areas of assessing and treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and Harold Wain (Chief, Psychiatry Consultation Liaison Service, Walter Reed Army Medical Center) outlined his team's clinical work with hospitalized, traumatically injured soldiers returning from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom deployments. Science Policy staffer Heather O'Beirne Kelly planned and staffed this briefing with an assist from Randy Phelps of the APA Practice Directorate.

Lest you think that all the action was at the end of May, APA Science Policy Director Geoff Mumford, along with Karen Studwell, planned a well-attended briefing called "NIH Research in Action: Innovative Behavioral Treatments for Mental and Substance Use Disorders" on May 4. 

We salute the psychologists who spoke at these briefings, whose work exemplifies the contributions of psychological research to sound public policy and practice. The hard-working Science Policy staff, in particular legislative assistant Sara Robinson, also deserves credit for helping plan the briefings, raise crowds and manage the follow-up tasks. APA truly puts its resources, staff and money, behind the goal to "give psychology away," and all of us in the APA Science Directorate are proud to participate.