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Taking Human Effectiveness Research to New Heights: APA Science Visits Nellis Air Force Base

APA's Public Policy Office (PPO) staff find their Capitol Hill advocacy efforts improve dramatically when they can present legislative staff with clear examples of psychological research's impact on real-world problems.

By Heather O'Beirne Kelly

APA's Public Policy Office (PPO) staff find their Capitol Hill advocacy efforts improve dramatically when they can present legislative staff with clear examples of psychological research's impact on real-world problems. At the end of January, Executive Director for Science Steve Breckler and PPO's Heather Kelly and Karen Studwell visited Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to get a first-hand look at human effectiveness research and its value to the Air Force mission.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, conducts and supports research related to Air Force mission priorities and advises senior Air Force leaders about scientific capabilities. Psychologist Hendrick Ruck heads up the Human Effectiveness Directorate within AFRL (AFRL-HE), which focuses on basic research and enabling technologies in the areas of warfighter training, crew system interface, bioeffects and protection, and deployment and sustainment. AFRL-HE has sent Col. Jim Davis, an engineer and retired Air Force fighter pilot, to Nellis Air Force base in the Nevada desert to link the laboratory behavioral researchers with operational Air Force personnel.

Nellis is the home for the Air Force's operational testing on aircraft (e.g. how well they perform in simulated combat environments), resulting tactics development, and combat training exercises. Col. Davis' on-site presence has been key in bringing together researchers and operational personnel early in the concept exploration phase for new systems and technologies, thereby increasing the relevance of research programs to current and future Air Force needs and better educating the military chain of command about how human-centered research can improve performance in the operational arenas. As one example, Col. Davis points to the area of human-systems interfaces, noting that human factors research has informed the design of cockpits over many decades, improving pilot decision-making through better visual and aural display design. He points out that one of the current significant challenges being addressed at Nellis with help from AFRL behavioral scientists involves assessing and improving integration in air and space operations centers, where operators interact with enormous information loads and sophisticated technologies to control large-scale air operation plans in simulations and actual battlespace settings.

Col. Davis also described another military operation that benefited directly from consultation with psychological scientists. Many of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) conducting critical missions in Iraq right now are operated by Air Force personnel here in the U.S. Not surprisingly, given the visual monitoring issues and length of shifts for these personnel, they were experiencing problems with fatigue. Experts were brought in to establish new behavioral routines based on results of research in this area, and Col. Davis says that the Air Force has seen dramatic improvements in performance as a result.

As PPO staff hit Capitol Hill this spring to advocate for behavioral research funding within the Department of Defense, this model partnership between active duty military personnel and psychological scientists is a powerful argument for our science and its role in national security, particularly in an era of tight budgets and sustained military engagements. For more information on APA's advocacy efforts in this area, please contact Heather Kelly.