Executive Director's Column

Answering the Call

David Abrams has done a fantastic job in representing the interests and values of behavioral and social sciences at NIH.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

For the scientific community of psychology, the federal funding agencies might seem like cold, uncaring, bureaucratic and impenetrable institutions. They make us jump through hoops, fill out forms, and wait for long periods of time only to be told (usually) that our proposals cannot be funded.

We are often puzzled and frustrated by the priorities of the agencies, and we are quick to complain when our areas of science are ignored and not supported. We shake our heads and walk away with resentment, convinced that the cold and uncaring federal agencies are heading in the wrong direction and taking the nation with them.

Seen this way, it is indeed a bleak and dismal picture. But it is wrong. People – smart and hard-working people – comprise the heart and soul of the federal agencies. They are scientists and professionals who happen to work in federal agencies rather than colleges or universities. They occupy positions of incredible responsibility and influence, but they are people just like you and me.

I know this from personal experience. I spent nearly ten years as a staff member of the National Science Foundation. Working in science policy and advocacy in Washington DC for nearly 15 years, I have come to know hundreds of federal agency staff at NSF, NIH, DoD, DHS, OMB, DOJ, NASA, EPA, Education, Transportation, on the Hill, across the river, and around the beltway. They are people, just like you and me.

The difference is that these people have answered a call – they have elected, for one reason or another, to devote their professional lives to managing and leading federal institutions. One of those leaders is David Abrams, who has served until recently as the Director of the NIH Office for Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR).

David Abrams has done a fantastic job in representing the interests and values of behavioral and social sciences at NIH. His predecessors, including APA’s CEO Norman Anderson, helped to establish the Office and build a strong foundation. A fascinating interview with David Abrams can be found in this issue of Psychological Science Agenda as well as in this month’s Science Policy Insider News SPIN [now APA Science Policy News].

With Abrams’ departure comes a new opportunity for another leader to step forward. If you think NIH needs good leadership in this area, if you are convinced that the interests of social and behavioral science must be preserved, protected, and celebrated at NIH, then you must make every effort to answer this call.

If we sit passively by, grumbling about a federal agency’s failures, then we have nobody to blame but ourselves. It is our responsibility, as citizens, as scientists, and collectively as a discipline, to make sure that effective leadership steps forward. That means you, or somebody you know.

Today, the opportunity is at OBSSR. Tomorrow it will be at NSF or NIMH or Education. We should thank the scientists who, like David Abrams, have done their duty and done it well. Yet, we must not assume that others will follow in their footsteps. We must not fall victim to a tragedy of the federal commons.

It is up to you to step forward now! Answer that call.