Executive Director's Column

Again the Target

The National Science Foundation faces funding challenges.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Starting in the mid-1970s, and continuing for 14 years, Senator William Proxmire commandeered the headlines with his Golden Fleece Awards. The Senator used these awards to spotlight what he felt to be the waste and abuse of taxpayer money. The Golden Fleece Awards had the intended effect. The media soaked it up, and hard questions were indeed asked of government agencies and their funding choices.

Psychological science was one of the popular targets. The very first Golden Fleece Award was bestowed upon NSF for its funding of a study to find out why people fall in love. One year later, NSF was again ridiculed for funding a study on human aggression. To be fair, NSF was not the only target. Indeed, it was rarely the target. Nor was psychological science the only target - but it was the one that produced some of the more sensational and memorable headlines.

The Golden Fleece era did eventually pass, but not without causing enduring changes in how the public thinks about the funding of science and how funding agencies manage their public images. Nor was the Golden Fleece era the last time that social and behavioral science was caught in the political cross-fire. In the early 1990s, Senator Robert Byrd drew social and behavioral science funding into a budget battle with the White House by proposing that 32 NSF grants be rescinded. This was my first personal encounter with federal budget politics - my own NSF grant was among those 32.

Now, for the second year in a row, Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) has introduced an amendment to the NIH appropriation bill to rescind the funding of two active NIMH peer-reviewed grants. Both grants were awarded to psychologists. One is Sandra Murray at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The other is Edward Wassserman at the University of Iowa. Both investigators are highly respected scientists, whose research contributions appear in the top journals and are influential. These grants were funded because dozens of other scientists judged them to be of the highest scientific caliber, and because NIMH judged them as supporting its mission to further the treatment and prevention of mental illness and to promote mental health.

When the same thing happened last year, the amendment passed on a voice vote. The language was eventually removed in the process of reconciling the House and Senate funding bills. But a dangerous precedent was set. This year, the amendment again passed on a voice vote. Science advocates will continue to press for the language to be removed. The immediate fear is that the proposed rescissions will survive. The longer-term fear is that such action represents only the tip of the iceberg.

Why is psychological science the target? Why do politicians pick on us so? At one level, it does not have much to do with the science. This is politics. It is a vehicle for congressional representatives to get some media attention, to show their constituents that they are hard at work, and to gain the upper hand on other issues pending before Congress.

Yet, at another level, it is all about our science and its vulnerability to public ridicule. We are good at convincing ourselves that psychological science is important, relevant to societal needs, and deserving of public support. We are not very good at convincing others of these truths that we tend to take for granted. If we had a better handle on this, congressional representatives would not dare attack psychological science. If we had deep public appreciation for our science, constituents would be demanding an increase in funding for psychological science.

We need to draw on these episodes as learning experiences. One lesson is that our advocacy efforts need to be expanded. We are getting better, but we still have considerable room for improvement. Another lesson is that we need to devote more attention and energy to the public image of psychology. As a long-term strategy, we will achieve greater success by making our case with the masses.

This is a call to action. We all need to stand up - right now - and engage the advocacy process. We all need to rally behind these two scientists. Next year it could be you. We also need to take a hard look at the public image of psychology, and devote ourselves to improving it. We need to put the same energy and passion into this as we put into our own research. The result will be a better and stronger psychological science.