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A Year as Senior Scientist

My year at the APA head office gave me the opportunity to observe meetings of the various directorate oversight boards and committees and to learn about the issues that were under current discussion.

By Clare Porac

The year began with lunch. This is the opening line of Peter Mayle's, A Year in Provence, a whimsical and often humorous account of his first year as an ex-patriot British writer living in the south of France. My year in Washington also began with lunch. However, it was not a lunch in a picturesque French bistro accompanied by a series of carefully-selected wines that Mayle describes in his book. Rather, my lunch was a selection of dubious-looking salads from the local delicatessen that I ate while sitting on the floor, salads on top of a cardboard box, in the center of the living room of my vacant apartment in northwest Washington DC. I would have a week of lunches like this while I waited for my belongings to arrive from Pennsylvania.

My gastronomic introduction to Washington was not as spectacular as Mayle's was to Provence. However, in all other respects the experience of living in Washington and spending my sabbatical year as the visiting Senior Scientist in the Science Directorate at APA was certainly a memorable one. Let me describe some of these experiences by concentrating on two themes that I think capture the flavor of my year.

Learning how APA works

As Steve Breckler, Executive Director of the Science Directorate, discussed in his June, 2006 Psychological Science Agenda column, most APA members have, at best, only a vague understanding of how APA and APA governance work. I admit that I was one of those members. My year at the APA head office gave me the opportunity to observe meetings of the various directorate oversight boards and committees and to learn about the issues that were under current discussion. Members of the APA staff were generous with their time in explaining the history of these issues and the current areas of agreement or debate. I was able to attend APA Council and caucus meetings and to observe the discussion, voting and approval processes regarding several APA task force and policy proposals. I also learned what it takes to publish each issue of the APA Monitor during my many interactions with the Monitor editorial and writing staff. Among other tasks, I often read pre-publication drafts of articles describing research findings to be featured in forthcoming Monitor issues. I was able to indulge my love of the study of the history of psychology during several interesting conversations with the APA historian and archivist and I was given a personal tour of the APA archives.

The Science Directorate engages in a number of outreach programs that provide resources and services to other societies of psychologists including the regional psychological associations. As part of this effort, I chaired a series of career workshops co-sponsored by APA and presented at the meetings of various host organizations. These workshops brought together, as panelists, psychologists from a variety of career paths and career stages who gave advice and guidance to post-doctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students on topics relevant to starting their careers as psychologists.

Since the visiting Senior Scientist is considered to be a member of the APA staff, I was able to experience, as a staff member, the work place environment of the APA head office. The APA head office management makes every attempt to apply the principles thought to promote a healthy, productive and inclusive workplace. There are opportunities for all staff members to make suggestions to the management about improvements or innovations and many of these suggestions are implemented. For example, APA staff members have diverse educational and training backgrounds and many wish to further their knowledge of psychology and psychological research. For this reason, I was asked to give a series of lunch time presentations on brain-behavior relations where I covered topics ranging from the effects of drugs on the brain to the current state of knowledge about the causes of Alzheimer's disease. My series of talks was just one of the many informational, professional training and health and wellness opportunities offered in-house to APA staff members.

Learning how Washington works

In recent years, I have become an avid follower of the local and national political scenes but, even given that background, spending time in Washington is an eye-opening, almost life-transforming, experience when it comes to gaining insight into how the national political process actually works. Some of the most informative moments of my year as visiting Senior Scientist were spent accompanying the APA Science Policy Office (SPO) staff to congressional hearings and briefings, to meetings with the Assistant Director of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to meetings of coalitions of various behavioral science and science organizations, and to federal budget rollouts as they pertained to the funding of scientific research. Being effective in Washington is based on what you know and who you know and the members of the SPO staff are highly-respected, knowledgeable and well-connected in the Washington community of organizations that advocate on behalf of issues of importance to science in all of its manifestations.

Members of the SPO staff shared their expertise and insider knowledge as they patiently explained the role of and the relationships among the dizzying array of advocacy coalitions and organizations at work in Washington. They were particularly helpful in explaining all of the inside-the-Beltway buzzwords and acronyms. After about six months I finally felt that I had a good grasp of what was going on; at least I understood what was being said. I was able to observe first hand how important a role the APA lobbyists play in advocating on behalf of the discipline of psychology and of individual psychologists. Because of their network of connections and experienced knowledge about how the system works, the SPO staff was able to step in to prevent congressional intervention that threatened to remove funding from two psychologists whose grants had already been approved by the peer review process. This is just one of the many examples of effective advocacy that I saw in action during my time in the Science Directorate.

Of course all of these work experiences took place against the vibrant and exciting backdrop of Washington DC itself. My dining experiences definitely improved as I sampled fare from the pubs of Capitol Hill filled with chattering congressional staffers, to the trendy bistros of Dupont Circle, to the more elegant restaurants along Pennsylvania Avenue. I saw all of the important monuments and visited all of the museums at least once and I took advantage of Washington's diverse theatre scene that features both traditional offerings, such as Shakespeare, as well as off-beat and edgy contemporary comedies and dramas. I could spend many pages describing the various art galleries and artistic masterpieces available for public viewing in the city, with the best possible feature being that most of these venues are free so that you can return frequently to enjoy and get to know the various collections over time.

There is always something exciting going on in Washington. You hear on the radio news that President Bush is spending the weekend at Camp David and, a few minutes later, you see the President's group of helicopters flying over head on route to the Maryland hills. There are motorcades of dignitaries that stop traffic. There are demonstrations in front of the White House, on the National Mall or on Capitol Hill, depending on the issue. There are interesting characters conducting individual political protests. My favorite is the man who stations himself on a bench in front of the Capitol. He holds a cardboard picture frame with a printed request asking you to vote for him for President. As you pass by, he raises the frame to circle his face and asks you for a campaign donation. By now he could have amassed quite a war chest since this area is always teeming with tourists photographing each other in front of the steps to the Capitol.

A final highlight was the fact that a year spent at APA allowed me to meet a large number of psychologists who are either APA staff members or members of various APA governance groups and committees. All of these psychologists are interesting people and many have fascinating careers that have not followed traditional paths. I even met two psychologists who work in counter intelligence. My students back at Penn State will be so impressed!