2009 Science Leadership Conference

Voices from the 2009 Science Leadership Conference

Scientists set off in small groups to visit the offices of their home state Senators and Representatives to make the case for federal support for psychological research and to enhance understanding of the role of psychology in improving health.

The 2009 APA Science Leadership Conference brought over 100 psychological scientists to Washington to learn about current policy and funding issues facing psychological and health research and to receive training in advocacy.  The scientists then set off in small groups to visit the offices of their home state Senators and Representatives to make the case for federal support for psychological research and to enhance understanding of the role of psychology in improving health.

The scientists made three main requests of their legislators:

  • Increase funding for the National Institutes of Health.

  • Preserve the integrity of the peer review system to ensure that projects are selected for funding without political interference.

  • Include consideration of psychological factors and interventions within federal initiatives for comparative effectiveness research.

In communicating these points, the scientists connected them to their own research and to the characteristics and needs of their states.  They were supported by state-specific background materials provided by APA that outlined the scientific, health, and economic impacts of federally funded research as well as the backgrounds and activities of their Senators and Representatives. 

Here are excerpts from interviews with some of the conference participants following their Congressional visits:



Stephen Chew, Samford University, and Martha Crowther, University of Alabama

Met with the staffs of Sen. Jeff Sessions, Sen. Richard Shelby, Rep. Spencer Bachus, and Rep. Artur Davis

The staff members were particularly interested in learning about the economic impact of NIH grants ($2 million last year in Alabama) and how Martha Crowther’s grant in particular supports jobs in both rural and urban parts of the state.  We were also able to overcome some stereotypes about psychologists being just clinicians in private practice – we educated the staffs about psychologists’ roles in prevention, wellness, evaluation, and treatment research, including research on comparative effectiveness of treatments.

Personal connections helped.  One of the staff members was a Samford alumnus and we learned that a family member of one of the Congressmen is involved in an autism organization.  We were able to build on these kinds of connections in making our points. 



Cisco Sánchez, UCLA School of Medicine

Met with the staffs of Sen. Barbara Boxer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Diane Watson, and Rep. Henry Waxman

These Senators and Representatives are already very knowledgeable about psychological and health research and their staffs expressed support for the points we raised.  I think it was important nonetheless to have this chance to reinforce our message and strengthen APA’s relationships with their offices. 

Some of the staff asked for suggestions on specific legislative language to ensure that psychological research is included in bills to fund comparative effectiveness research.  APA will provide that input to them.

I’ve lobbied on LGBT issues before, but with other Congressional Offices.  The meetings I had this year were a lot less contentious!



Jennifer Harman, Colorado State University

Met with the staffs of Sen. Michael Bennet, Sen. Mark Udall, Rep. Diana DeGette, and Rep. Betsy Markey

APA provided us with a great opportunity to directly convey our work to Congressional offices and promote understanding of science and its contributions.

I think I helped increase the legislators’ awareness of how NIH funding impacts the state of Colorado economically.  I told them that NIH grants bring money and employment to the state and that health research can lead to prevention of health problems and reductions in health care costs.  I know that a lot of my representatives are fiscally conservative, so I emphasized that psychologists bring a specialty to health care and research that can strengthen the effects of medical interventions and make them more cost effective.  I pointed out that psychologists work especially well with other disciplines.

I’m part of a new school of public health that is attracting many students and making public health more visible in the Rocky Mountain region.  I talked about the need for research support for this school and its investigators and how that support will enhance the economy and well-being of the region.

Some legislators don’t know much about the peer review process.  It’s important to educate them about how it works and why it should be preserved.  I made the case for not interfering in the peer review process and not canceling grants that are already funded on political grounds.  The staffers were receptive to these arguments.

I sent follow-up messages to the staff people I met and I plan to keep them informed about my research and funding, as well as that of my department – particularly activities that contribute to the quality of life in Colorado.

I will also take my experience and the information I learned at the conference back to my students and encourage them to engage in advocacy.  Advocacy is critically important but it involves a different skill set than what we learn as academics.  You need to learn how to talk to legislators of various backgrounds about your research, relating it to their interests. You also need to learn how to create succinct briefing sheets and craft key message points.  It takes work, but the reward is that you can have an influence on the development of policy.



Jeannette Ickovics, Yale University

Met with the staffs of Sen. Christopher Dodd, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Rep. Joe Courtney, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro

These Senators and Representatives are supportive of NIH and the issues I raised.  Their staff members and I talked about the important role of prevention within health reform and how behavioral and psychological science can enhance the effectiveness of prevention.  I made the point that we need to study and intervene beyond individuals; to make prevention most effective, we need to consider the broader context of policies and programs that focus on families and the communities in which we live and work.

One of the staff members asked if I would participate in a local town hall meeting on health care reform.  I immediately said yes, and look forward to participating. 

It also was great to run into a former graduate student of mine, now working as a staff member focused on health issues.  That personal and professional connection helped facilitate our communication about science and health issues.



Frank Durso, Georgia Tech

Met with Rep. John Lewis and his staff, as well as the staffs of Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Sen. Johnny Isakson

We talked mainly about peer review issues and comparative effectiveness research.  I described how the NIH peer review system works and why it’s important that political concerns not interfere with the scientific evaluation of grant applications.  I pointed out the dangers of Congressional efforts to defund grants that have already gone through peer review and the rigorous NIH decision-making process.  The staffers seemed to understand these points.  They also responded positively to my arguments for including psychological research within comparative effectiveness research. 

I found it helpful to engage the staff members at a personal level by asking about their own backgrounds and interests and relating my points to those.  In one case, this led to a conversation about health care reform and their asking for additional materials about what APA is looking to achieve for psychology within the reform effort.  I’ve asked APA to respond with further information on that.

It was wonderful to meet Congressman Lewis in person.  He was a major figure in the civil rights movement and continues to do very important work on health and other issues.



Winny Shen, University of Minnesota, and Traci Mann, University of Minnesota

Met with the staffs of Sen. Al Franken, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Keith Ellison, and Rep. Erik Paulsen

We found that some of the offices were interested in the full range of scientific, health, and economic impacts of NIH funding, while others were primarily interested in the economic impacts.  Focusing on economics, we made the case that NIH grants not only helped to create jobs but also to increase the skill levels of the Minnesota workforce. 

We educated the staffers about scientists’ concerns about political interference in peer review and funding.   Afterwards, we arranged for APA to send them information about cases in which some members of Congress have attempted to de-fund grants and about APA’s involvement in coalitions aimed at preventing such interference.

Regarding comparative effectiveness research, the staffs seemed to be mainly interested in learning more about specific bills that are coming up for votes and how behavioral research is addressed in the language of those bills.  Again, we arranged for APA to provide them with that information.

Advocacy is fun!  More psychologists should do it.

New Jersey


Alejandro Interian, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

Met with the staffs of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Sen. Robert Menendez, Rep.  Rodney Frelinghuysen,  Rep. Bill Pascrell, and Rep. Frank Pallone

This was a great opportunity to communicate what psychology has to offer to those in government who are in a position to bring psychology into the forefront of research and health care.  I shared some examples of the contributions of psychology to health, including research on exercise, diet, and other health behaviors and research on adherence to treatment.  It was useful to point out that drug therapies don’t work if people don’t take their medications regularly and that psychology can help us understand how to help people to do that.

I found that funding for NIH already has bipartisan support.  But I was still able to attract the staff members’ attention when I explained that it is wasteful to train people for research through federally funded fellowships, loan repayment programs, and training conferences and then not be able to provide sufficient research funds for them to continue their careers.  That’s a big loss of investment.

The staff were open to learning more about how psychological science should be included within comparative effectiveness research.  They asked for specific language to include in legislation.  I’ve asked APA to provide that to them as follow-up.

Visiting offices on Capitol Hill was a lot of fun and I hope to do it again.



Judith Garber, Vanderbilt University

Met with the staffs of Sen. Lamar Alexander, Sen. Bob Corker, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Rep. Jim Cooper, and Rep. John Duncan

My group found that many offices were especially interested in the economic impacts of NIH grants, such as the jobs that grants help support.  Given the current state of the economy, such economic arguments in favor of NIH funding often can be even more persuasive than arguments based on scientific and health impacts.  The information we were given by APA about NIH funding in Tennessee helped us make our point about the significant economic stimulus provided by NIH grants.

Some staff raised concerns that comparative effectiveness research could potentially lead to rationing of health care.  That led to some interesting discussions in which we argued that such research can lead to improvements in treatment and to lowered health care costs, and not likely result in rationing.

We will be following up with staff members with further information about NIH and about behavioral science.  Making ourselves available as resources for these offices may have been one of the most important outcomes of these meetings.



Janet Hyde, University of Wisconsin

Met with the staffs of Sen. Russell Feingold, Sen. Herb Kohl, and Rep. Tammy Baldwin

I met with the staffs of three wonderful legislators.  They are all strong supporters of NIH and understand research and its importance for health and the economy.  All of the staffers responded positively to the points that I made.  They were especially interested in the information we provided about research spending in Wisconsin and its economic impact.

I was also able to educate the staffs about how comparative effectiveness research can include studies of behavioral interventions as well as drugs.  They had not thought much about that before but were very interested to learn about it. I think we definitely increased awareness and understanding of this topic.