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Science Leadership Conference Takes Psychological Science to the Hill

APA’s Executive Director for Science Steve Breckler opened this year’s SciLC by encouraging the attendees to embrace their roles as civic scientists and to prepare themselves to become “a veritable army of psychological scientists ascending Capitol Hill, fresh from their basic training, with important messages to deliver.”

By Karen Studwell

In October, the Science Directorate held its Third Annual Science Leadership Conference (SciLC), Adventures in Advocacy: Training the Civic Scientist. The event brought together more than 100 psychological scientists conducting research in areas ranging from basic developmental research with non-human animals and cognitive neuroscience, to substance abuse, education, occupational health, and clinical research. Though representing such disparate areas of psychology, they all joined together to advocate with one strong voice on behalf of issues central to every scientist: funding for research and support for peer review.

During the conference, participants learned firsthand how the federal appropriations process works, how science agencies are funded, how APA works to support federal funding sources and stable research infrastructures and, most importantly, how they could engage in the process and advocate on behalf of behavioral research.

APA’s Executive Director for Science Steve Breckler opened this year’s SciLC by encouraging the attendees to embrace their roles as civic scientists and to prepare themselves to become “a veritable army of psychological scientists ascending Capitol Hill, fresh from their basic training, with important messages to deliver.” In her opening remarks, APA President Sharon Stephens Brehm also urged the audience to share their newfound experiences and knowledge with their colleagues back home and to cultivate a culture of service and civic engagement throughout their careers.

The opening session featured several psychologists who have fully embraced civic engagement by working for a year or longer as Congressional Fellows for members of Congress. Diane Marsh, an APA Fellow in 2003-2004, reflected on her decision to apply for the APA Congressional Fellowship and her experience working for Senator Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico. Jenelle Krishnamoorthy, a former Congressional Fellow for the Society for Research in Child Development who currently works for Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, was excited to have so many psychologists involved in the policy process, as it is important to hear from those with scientific expertise as policy decisions are being made. Finally, Ruth Friedman, a former APA Congressional Fellow for Rep. George Miller, who has continued to work for him on the House Committee on Education and Labor, shared her experiences of working for years in the House as members of the minority party and appreciating the different influence on policy once control of the House moved to the other party.

On Sunday, participants were provided an overview of APA’s role in lobbying for the science of psychology from APA’s own six-member strong Science Government Relations Office. Geoff Mumford, Assistant Director for Science Government Relations, discussed the wide range of agencies APA covers that support behavioral research, including not only the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, but also the Departments of Defense, Education, Transportation, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Justice, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. To focus the SciLC efforts more strategically, participants were then briefed in greater detail on the three main advocacy goals for the conference: 1) increasing congressional support for the peer review process; 2) a $6.55 billion FY 2008 funding level for NSF; and 3) a $950 million increase for NIH for FY2008.

Pat Kobor and Elizabeth Hoffman of Science GRO explained how the annual federal budget and appropriations process works and how organizations like APA arrive at their requested levels of funding for the agencies. Some of the current challenges to securing robust funding streams for the NIH and the NSF are shared by many other agencies, and one of Congress’ roles is balancing competing national priorities, such as education, health care, and care for veterans. Karen Studwell and Heather Kelly followed with an update on the current threats to peer-reviewed research as Congress continues to select individual peer-reviewed grants for defunding based on cursory reviews of the abstracts or perhaps simply the titles. In the past few years, more than 20 grants have been targeted via amendments during House floor debates on bills related to NIH and NSF. APA has worked to defeat these amendments and has counted on the leadership of members of Congress such as Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) to defend the merit-review system used by federal agencies to ensure that only scientific research of the highest quality receives support.

For his leadership on this and other issues, APA honored Rep. Baird, who is also a psychologist and APA member, with the Science Directorate’s inaugural Champion of Science Award. In presenting the award, APA CEO Norman Anderson praised Rep. Baird’s work to protect peer review at NSF as well as his role in ensuring that social and behavioral sciences were included in the recently passed America Competes Act. In presenting the award, Sharon Stephens Brehm offered her gratitude to Rep. Baird for his vision, leadership and unyielding commitment to furthering science, including the science of psychology, as a means of addressing pressing national challenges. Many individual SciLC participants put their newly acquired advocacy skills to work as they thanked Rep. Baird personally following the award presentation.

On the final day of SciLC, participants gathered for a quick review of their talking points and then headed to the Hill where they met with more than 120 House and Senate offices to ask for congressional support for science funding as well as peer review. Following their visits, participants had debriefing sessions with Science GRO staff members, recounting with enthusiasm their advocacy experiences of the day and planning for continued contact with their Members of Congress.

For APA members interested in getting involved in similar advocacy activities, you can stay current on what science policy issues are on the minds of Congress or the Executive Branch by subscribing to SPIN [now APA Science Policy News], the Science GRO’s email newsletter. If you would like to join your colleagues in reaching out to your members of Congress, please consider joining APA’s Public Policy Advocacy Network (PPAN). As a member of PPAN, you will receive “Action Alerts” from the APA Government Relations Office when psychology’s voice needs to be heard on important public policy or science funding issues.

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