Demonstrating virtual reality research to lawmakers

Psychological scientist works with computer scientist to study children’s safety behavior.

At the 2019 Coalition for Health Funding’s Public Health Fair on Capitol Hill, held on September 12, the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences  (FABBS) jointly showcased groundbreaking interdisciplinary research by psychologist Jodie Plumert which is enabling scientists to observe children and their decision-making skills in a risk-free way in virtual reality (VR) environments. (Watch a video about their research.)

Dr. Jodie Plumert helps Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) with a VR headset

Dr. Jodie Plumert helps Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) with a VR headset

Dr. Plumert and her collaborator, computer scientist Joseph Kearney, both of the University of Iowa, demonstrated the technology that enables them to study street-crossing behavior to Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the National Institutes of Health.  Rep. Roybal-Allard was among the many attendees who tried out the VR helmet and ran across a (virtual) road.

Dr. Jodie Plumert and Dr. Joseph Kearney at the Public Health Fair

Dr. Jodie Plumert and Dr. Joseph Kearney at the Public Health Fair

While in DC, the two Iowa scientists also met directly with Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) and congressional staff from the offices of Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) to discuss the impact and benefits of research funding.

Held annually in a congressional office building, the Public Health Fair is an interactive exhibition designed to educate congressional representatives and staff about current health topics.  Past APA exhibits at the fair have included VR applications designed to distract burn patients from painful medical procedures, and brief interventions designed to reduce stress as part of an exhibit on APA’s “Stress in America” survey.

For more information, contact Pat Kobor, pkobor@apa.org, of APA’s Advocacy Office.

Psychological scientist visits Capitol Hill to advocate for NIH funding

More than 200 participants join the 2019 Rally for Medical Research.

By William Stoops, PhD

The 2019 Rally for Medical Research brought together more than 200 patients, families, survivors and researchers for visits to Capitol Hill on September 19, 2019 to advocate for an increase of $2.5 billion in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for fiscal year 2020.  I was pleased to participate as a representative of the American Psychological Association, bringing my experience as a psychological scientist and substance use disorder researcher at the University of Kentucky.

As pointed out by NIH director Francis Collins at a reception the evening before the Rally, NIH routinely receives bipartisan support, because NIH research saves lives, creates jobs and has an over $8 return on investment for every dollar spent.

Dr. William Stoops of the University of Kentucky and NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins.

Dr. William Stoops of the University of Kentucky and NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins.

Psychological science can be brought to bear on many of the country’s problems because so many illnesses have a strong behavioral component, including substance use disorder, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It was with this mindset that I visited the offices of my Members of Congress to talk about the value of psychological science and of increases to NIH funding.

On the day of the Rally, I met with staff from the offices of Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).   I was pleased with the amount of time they gave me and the interest they showed in learning about my substance use disorder research, how NIH funding benefits constituents, and how crucial it is to have psychological science in the NIH portfolio.

I described my research, including a large trial evaluating how a behavioral intervention can affect cocaine use and subsequently impact cardiac, immune and psychosocial function. I also discussed the controlled human laboratory studies at the University of Kentucky that are aimed at understanding the behavioral and pharmacological mechanisms that contribute to substance use disorder. Although not experts in this area, the staffers asked thoughtful questions and showed they understood the importance and sophistication of this research.

The advocates for the 2019 Rally for Medical Research.

The advocates for the 2019 Rally for Medical Research.

I don’t think that psychologists do enough of this type of advocacy work. We have a lot of answers to the big problems facing society, but we must speak to our leaders and the public in ways that lead to better understanding and implementation of our work.  

I’m looking forward to continuing to advocate for psychological science and encourage you to do so as well. 

For further information on APA’s participation in the Rally for Medical Research, please contact Craig Fisher, PsyD via email.

Applying the science of policy attitudes to science policy

Leveraging a research background to contribute to the federal science policy process.

By Laura Van Berkel, PhD

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A path to advocacy

Insights from psychology and social sciences are key to solving complex policy challenges facing science, the nation, and the world. As a social psychologist with expertise in political psychology and social cognition, I studied how basic cognitive processes influence political and policy attitudes, in such areas as social equality and environmental decision-making.

During my graduate studies and post-doctoral work, in addition to my research, I took advantage of opportunities to get more involved in public policy and advocacy events.  I participated in a Legislative Engagement Day hosted by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI, APA Division 9) and in an organization in Germany, where I helped register American citizens living abroad to vote and trained members on evidence-based political communication. I also had the opportunity to communicate research findings through several national media outlets, such as National Public Radio and The Conversation.

Although my research and advocacy experiences provided a basis for understanding attitudes toward policy, I had little understanding of how public policy was developed and communicated to the public. In addition to learning how policy was formed and how to better influence, evaluate, and communicate policy, I was interested in exploring a career in government where I could promote the value of social and behavioral research and help inform evidence-based policy. The APA Executive Branch Science Fellowship provided the perfect opportunity to learn about and connect my research skills to the world of science policy.

Science policy at the National Science Foundation

My fellowship placement was at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE). In this position I contributed to connecting the public to research in four main ways:

  • Data Management Plans and public access policy
    Researchers are required to submit a Data Management Plan (DMP) to NSF as part of proposals that specify how they will manage data from NSF grants, including plans for data sharing and storage. However, it was unclear to what extent researchers were following NSF guidelines and what common practices exist for managing data in DMPs.  Thus, I evaluated the content of DMPs in SBE and produced a report and presentation about the results that was distributed to SBE leadership and the NSF Public Access Working Group. Results from this study may shape data management training, evaluation of DMPs across NSF, and program solicitations.  

  • NSF 2026 Idea Machine
    The Idea Machine—an offshoot of one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas—is a public competition to inform NSF’s strategic priorities and research agenda in the coming decade. I evaluated the characteristics of entries and entrants to the Idea Machine, provided tentative recommendations on advancing entries for further consideration, and assisted in organizing the internal judging process. This work will help NSF more effectively target public outreach and shape NSF’s funding priorities. 

  • Communicate the value of the social, behavioral and economic sciences
    SBE sciences affect national security, disaster preparedness, well-being, safety, and more. A group of SBE staff work together on a communications team dedicated to conveying this societal impact to the public and to policymakers. As part of this team, I wrote a narrative story about how NSF-funded science has improved the well-being of Americans in consultation with researchers and affected community members.  This story will appear later this year on the SBE website and help demonstrate the societal return on investments in SBE sciences.

  • Science of Broadening Participation
    SBE supports research on the Science of Broadening Participation (SBP)—the theories, methods, and analyses that help understand factors that enhance or hinder broad participation in sectors of society. As a member of the SBP working group, I helped edit a program announcement, compile information about project outcomes from prior funding, and contributed to funding decision discussions. This work contributed to advancing SBP as a long-term funding program and communicating program outcomes of this important research area to agency leadership and policymakers.

Reflections on the year

Through these and other projects, I learned the complex process of managing federal grants and communicating the value of basic science. The fellowship provided the opportunity to impact NSF’s grant planning and evaluation processes and gave me a front-row seat to learn how NSF determines and implements large-scale strategic research priorities. I am grateful to the dedicated NSF staff who guided me throughout the year—they are as thoughtful as one could hope for in developing science policy and in selecting reviewers, panelists, and ultimately grants to be funded.

The fellowship also provided the invaluable opportunity to learn broadly about behavioral and social science careers in non-academic sectors. Over the fellowship year, I met with social scientists in the federal government, local government, think tanks, international financial institutions, non-profit and for-profit research institutes, and congressional offices. I learned there are many diverse and expanding career opportunities for psychologists in policy.

Next steps

After such a positive experience during my fellowship year, I was hooked on policy work and wanted to understand how science impacts policy in other agencies. I am now an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow placed at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Center for Excellence in Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance. In this position, I will work on social and behavioral change, helping field missions integrate insights from social and behavioral science into programming. The topics I will work on include elections, empowerment and inclusion of marginalized groups, human rights, and governance. As an APA Executive Branch Science Fellow at NSF, I got a taste of the federal policy process and I am excited to learn how policy is formulated and implemented in an agency with a different mission and goals. I would like to thank the APA staff for providing me with this opportunity to start building a career in public policy.

Advocating for research in geropsychology

APA members discuss psychology and aging with members of Congress in their home districts.

Congress may have been in recess during August, but that did not stop members of the American Psychological Association from continuing to promote psychological science to their federal legislators.

Members of APA’s Division 20 (Adult Development and Aging) took advantage of the recess to meet with legislators in their Congressional district offices, while others invited legislators to tour their labs.

These psychologists spoke about how psychologists are working to better the lives of the nation’s aging population and the need for further federal investment in psychological research.

Here are a few highlights from the visits:


 

Dr. Katherine King (William James College) and her student, Michelle Jolson, met with Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) in his district office where they had an in-depth discussion on mental health research and cost-effective interventions. Dr. King thanked Rep. Kennedy for all he has done in support of mental health research and encouraged him to continue along this path in the future.

From left to right: Michelle Jolson, Joe Kennedy, Katherine King

From left to right: Michelle Jolson, Joe Kennedy, Katherine King


 

Dr. Walter Boot (Florida State University) provided a tour of his lab to staff from the office of Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL). Throughout the tour, Dr. Boot and his team emphasized the importance of behavioral research on aging and technology and the role of psychologists in supporting aging individuals.

Walter Boot (left) demonstrates a computer system, specially designed for older adults at risk for social isolation, to staff members of Rep. Dunn’s office (from left to right: staff members Will Kendrick, Meghan Myhill, and Amanda Daughtry).

Walter Boot (left) demonstrates a computer system, specially designed for older adults at risk for social isolation, to staff members of Rep. Dunn’s office (from left to right: staff members Will Kendrick, Meghan Myhill, and Amanda Daughtry).

Dr. Boot, along with Dr. Neil Charness (Florida State University), also met with a staff member in Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) office, to discuss the need for increased funding of behavioral research in aging and challenges in preparing the workforce, including psychologists, to meet the needs of an aging population. They highlighted efforts by APA’s Committee on Aging to encourage interest in geropsychology, including the release of the Careers in Aging Roadmap.

In addition, Drs. Boot and Charness demonstrated to Sen. Rubio’s staff the software their team developed for older adults at risk for social isolation, as well as their driving simulator and virtual reality equipment.


 

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) toured several labs at the University of Florida’s College of Public Health and Health Professions at the invitation of Dr. Michael Marsiske. Marsiske’s team (along with faculty from the clinical and health psychology and neurology departments) focused on the importance of federal investment in clinical and biomedical research.  As an example of the outcomes of such investment, they demonstrated to Rep. Yoho how their work to better detect early changes in cognitive function and postpone cognitive decline has the potential to improve daily functioning in older adults. 

Read Dr. Marsiske’s blog post about Rep. Yoho’s visit.


 

Dr. Lisa Brown (Palo Alto University) and her student, Tristan Hansell, met with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) in her district office for a discussion of that focused on how psychology can inform disaster response for older adults.

From left to right: Lisa Brown, Anna Eshoo, and Tristan Hansell

From left to right: Lisa Brown, Anna Eshoo, and Tristan Hansell


 

Dr. Katherine Judge (Cleveland State University) met with the district director for Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), for a broad discussion of the value of the federal investment in behavioral and health research. Rep. Judge, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, has a particular interest in diabetes, nutrition and obesity.

Good news: Budget deal ends threat of sequestration

Deal between House, Senate and Administration allows for spending increases in science and other areas.

White House officials and congressional leaders have agreed to a two-year deal, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019, to raise the budget caps that have plagued federal budgeting since 2011.  The deal would raise the caps by $321 billion and suspend the debt ceiling until July, 2021. The budget deal also includes $77 billion in spending cuts that offset the higher levels of allowed spending. The offsets include increased fees and cuts to mandatory programs such as the Prevention and Public Health Fund. This fund has been used to help partially offset earlier budget deals.

The House will vote on the legislation before members leave July 26 for the August district work period.  The Senate will take it up afterward.

This deal will enable significant spending increases for scientific, education and health priority programs. For example, the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee has approved a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health. The Senate subcommittee has not yet acted on its version of the bill. But an increase of that size would not be possible if the restrictive caps remained in place. The agreement specifically authorizes $2.5 billion in spending for the 2020 Census, clearing the way for the often- controversial survey to be funded in time.  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's statement said: “This agreement represents a vast improvement over the harmful cuts contained in the President’s 2020 budget, restores certainty to our budgeting and achieves the priorities that Democrats have laid out from the beginning: [It] permanently ends the threat of the sequester, and prevents devastating funding cuts of 14% to defense spending and 13% to non-defense spending.”

Republican Senators predicted the bill would pass, but not without some opposition.  Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Senate Republican Whip, said “It probably won’t get all of our members but I think it will get a lot of them.“

The American Psychological Association and many other organizations have advocated that Congress eliminate the harmful, unrealistic budget caps that were included in the Budget Control Act of 2011.  The caps were so restrictive that Congress allowed them to take effect only once, in Fiscal Year 2013. Automatic spending cuts went into effect that year, an enforcement mechanism known as sequestration. A bipartisan agreement to lift the caps means Congress can increase spending on priority programs without forcing spending cuts in return. 

APA calls on Senate leadership to support VA-sponsored canine research

On May 14, 2019, the American Psychological Association (APA) sent a letter to Sen. John Boozman, chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, and Sen. Brian Schatz, ranking member of the subcommittee, to express opposition to language in the House version of the FY 2020 Military Construction-VA Appropriations bill that would prohibit the Department of Veterans Affairs from continuing its important research with canines.

To date this research program has been instrumental in the development of many therapies and therapeutics that benefit humans, including a cardiac pacemaker, non-invasive treatment of intervertebral discs, cough enhancement stimulators for individuals with spinal cord injuries (which renders them susceptible to respiratory infections), and treatments for narcolepsy.

The letter notes the stringent regulations in the United States on research with nonhuman animals, which ensure the research is ethically sound and scientifically valid and that the animals involved are afforded humane care and treatment.

APA, in collaboration with other organizations, will continue to monitor the funding bill and work to ensure that language that prevents the conduct of important research is not included in the final version.

For further information on APA’s work on this issue, contact Dr. Sangy Panicker, Director of the Research Ethics Office in the Science Directorate; Dr. Heather Kelly, Director, Military and Veterans Health Policy; or Pat Kobor, Senior Science Policy Analyst.