Government Relations Update

NSF, robots and autism

APA and Vanderbilt team up to brief members of Congress.

As Congress deliberates on two important pieces of legislation authorizing and appropriating funds to the National Science Foundation (NSF) within the next few weeks, there are renewed threats to allocations for social and behavioral science research at NSF. To showcase the superb psychological science supported by NSF and the role of psychology in multidisciplinary approaches to solving important societal and health problems, the American Psychological Association teamed up with Vanderbilt University to bring in scientists and a very special robot for a Capitol Hill event on May 7, 2014.  

Vanderbilt University faculty Zachary Warren (a psychologist) and Nilanjan Sarkar (a robotics engineer) are collaborators on an NSF grant that has led to the development of “Russell the Robot,” a humanoid robot designed to engage with and deliver interventions to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Warren, Sarkar and Russell were featured at the twentieth annual Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) exhibit and reception, where they were big hits with members of Congress and their staffs. In addition to the hundreds of legislative and executive branch staff in attendance, eight members of Congress stopped by to interact with Russell and talk with the Vanderbilt scientists: Reps. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., Rush Holt, D-N.J., Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., James Moran, D-Va., Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y.  

Warren and Sarkar walked the representatives through a demonstration with Russell in which they were asked to follow oral directions and mimic movements, behaviors that children diagnosed with ASD find particularly challenging in human social interactions. 

Left to Right: Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) gets a close-up look at Russell's social engagement intervention; "Russell," Vanderbilt University researchers' humanoid robot designed to engage children with Autism Spectrum Disorder; Russell puts Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) through her paces at the Capitol Hill event highlighting NSF-funded research. 

Left to Right: Waving to Russel, Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., — ranking member on the House Appropriations Subcommittee, with jurisdiction over NSF — has been a champion of the federal BRAIN research initiative; "Russell," Vanderbilt University researchers' humanoid robot designed to engage children with Autism Spectrum Disorder; Russell puts Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, through her paces at the Capitol Hill event highlighting NSF-funded research.


Left to Right: Vanderbilt University graduate student Jenny Zheng, psychologist Zachary Warren and robotics engineer Nilanjan Sarkar with Russell; Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) -- ranking member on the House Appropriations Subcommittee with jurisdiction over NSF -- has been a champion of the federal BRAIN research initiative.

Left to Right: Vanderbilt University graduate student Jenny Zheng, psychologist Zachary Warren and robotics engineer Nilanjan Sarkar with Russell; Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., gets a close-up look at Russell's social engagement intervention.

Early data from the NSF-funded research suggest that engaging with Russell, programmed with sophisticated capabilities to continuously track and automatically adapt to children’s behaviors in real time, both captures children’s attention and improves skills for which early intervention is critical.

Earlier in the day, Warren and Sarkar met with Senate and House staff from their Tennessee delegation as well as with staff of members who are active in the Congressional Autism Caucus. They highlighted both the importance of investing in fundamental psychological and engineering research at NSF and the process by which results of that research are translated into applications for clinical interventions. Warren and Sarkar also urged members in the House to watch the upcoming NSF-related legislation carefully and vote against amendments or even the entire bills if they include substantial cuts to social and behavioral science support.

The American Psychological Association (APA) opposes H.R. 4186, known as the FIRST Act of 2014, because of the dramatic cuts it proposes to the NSF Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate. The fiscal year 2015 appropriations bill funding NSF (H.R. 4660) passed successfully out of full committee in early May and is scheduled for floor debate and vote in the House shortly. APA will monitor the progress of this bill, given its history of attracting amendments seeking to defund individual behavioral science grants and the SBE Directorate.

CNSF is an alliance of over 125 organizations united by a concern for the scientific enterprise and a commitment to the nation’s investment in NSF. The coalition, in which APA has been active since its inception in 1988, sponsors the annual event to highlight results of NSF-funded research. This year, more than 35 scientific associations and universities brought scientists to Washington to meet with congressional offices and display their work at the evening exhibit. 

For more information, contact Heather Kelly of the APA Science Government Relations Office.