Executive Director's Column

Science, Practice, and Federal Funding

Much of what we do as a science depends on grants from NIH, NSF, DoD, NASA, Education, DHS, and other federal agencies. We work closely with the funding agencies, and we make sure that their congressional authorizations and budgets are inclusive of psychological research.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

One of the main activities of the APA Science Directorate is a vigorous science policy and advocacy effort. We work especially hard to represent the interests of psychology when it comes to federal funding for research. Much of what we do as a science depends on grants from NIH, NSF, DoD, NASA, Education, DHS, and other federal agencies. We work closely with the funding agencies, and we make sure that their congressional authorizations and budgets are inclusive of psychological research.

Those who follow NIH know that funding priorities have been changing, and many among us believe that support for behavior-based research is being pushed aside so that more money can go to neuroscience and genome-based research. We touch upon this issue frequently in APA Science Directorate communications.

If it is true (and we believe it is), we need to focus on the reasons. We can entertain dozens of explanations, but I would like to focus here on one that we dont talk much about. It has to do with the relationship between the science of psychology and the practice of psychology, in particular the health-related interventions and services delivered by psychologists.

One reason why the biomedical research enterprise enjoys favored status for NIH funding is because it is perceived as being part of a smooth flow and translation of new knowledge into practice. Medical practice is seen by most as a well-established, well-functioning system for delivering interventions based directly on research in biology, genetics, chemistry, pharmacology, physiology, and other fields.

In contrast, the perception of behavioral research is that it has no well-established, well-functioning system for the delivery of interventions. If the leadership of NIH believes that behavioral research cannot be delivered effectively, it may be using that to justify a lower priority for funding.

Of course, it is not true. The practice community of psychology is well-established, well-functioning, and perfectly capable of delivering interventions that are the direct result of behavior-based research. Indeed, in many areas of health and disease, the interventions delivered by psychologists are far more effective than those delivered by medically-oriented providers.

Why, then, do we suffer from this misperception? I believe it is because psychology has allowed itself to feed a perceived divide or rift between our science and our practice. We speak often of the science-practice divide. It is framed as us versus them. We let ourselves be placed into silos, and force ourselves to identify either as practice or as science. And as any social psychologist will tell you, we therefore lay the groundwork for animosity, intergroup conflict, and turf battles.

This is counterproductive, and it hurts both our science and our practice. Many in the science community of psychology want to place greater distance between themselves and the health-related practice of psychology. Indeed, some among us work hard to sever the connection between scientific psychology and clinical practice. I believe that some professional societies exist with this purpose in mind.

If the leadership of NIH perceives a disconnect between the science and practice of psychology, who have we to blame? I think it falls squarely with those who seek to divide psychology along science-practice lines. If the science community of psychology wants to gain favored status among health-related funders, we must find ways to embrace and integrate with our colleagues in practice. We need to set aside our family squabbles, and move forward as the integrated, translational science we really are.