Social psychologist presents research on Capitol Hill

Kate Sweeny of UC Riverside shares her work on how waiting and worrying affect health and wellbeing.

On May 9, 2018, the American Psychological Association (APA) participated in the 24th Annual Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) Exhibition on Capitol Hill as part of an all-day event aimed at increasing congressional awareness of the importance of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the research the agency supports – including basic behavioral and social science. To convey the impact and policy relevance of psychological research, APA sponsored a visit by Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, whose NSF-funded work examines the effects of waiting and uncertainty on health and wellbeing. 

Read our interview with Kate Sweeny to learn more about her research and advocacy.

During the day, Sweeny and APA staff met with the offices of Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) as well as Representatives Pete Aguilar (D-CA), Barbara Comstock (R-VA), Raul Ruiz (D-CA), and Mark Takano (D-CA) to describe her work and its significance.

Sweeny led the lawmakers and their staffs through her research with patients, law school graduates, and others experiencing uncertainty waiting for news or results, and how this experience gets “under the skin” to disrupt health, including sleep and immunity.  She went on to explain how small improvements in communications between patients and healthcare providers and in health information technology could reduce these health effects.  The universal experience of waiting connected with the lawmakers, all of whom could quickly identify a time when they’ve experienced that particular kind of stress.

 Kate Sweeny at the office of Representative Mark Takano (D-CA)

Kate Sweeny at the office of Representative Mark Takano (D-CA)

That evening, Sweeny joined 32 interdisciplinary exhibitors at the Exhibition to discuss her research with federal officials, including Representatives James Comer (R-KY) and Leonard Lance (R-NJ), and Fay Cook, Assistant Director of the NSF Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences. 

Among the topics that came up was Sweeny’s research on the impacts of waiting to hear news about immigration status among “Dreamers” who are in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.  Her work reinforced the need to find a permanent legislative solution for the Dreamers.  (See the APA statement on Dream Act for more information.)

Congressional outreach, like Sweeny’s, is essential for communicating psychological research to policymakers and promoting development of psychologically-informed, evidence-based policy. Sweeny’s stories, alongside those of other science advocates at APA and throughout the scientific community, detailing how investments in NSF support her research, fund her graduate students, and help accelerate scientific progress are one of the factors underlying NSF’s recent budget increases from $7.5 billion in fiscal year 2017, to $7.8 billion in fiscal year 2018, to a proposed $8.2 billion in fiscal year 2019.

 Kate Sweeny discussing her research with Representative James Comer (R-KY)

Kate Sweeny discussing her research with Representative James Comer (R-KY)

  Kate Sweeny and Fay Cook, Assistant Director of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences

 Kate Sweeny and Fay Cook, Assistant Director of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences

 Kate Sweeny with Representative Leonard Lance (R-NJ)

Kate Sweeny with Representative Leonard Lance (R-NJ)

Please contact Steve Newell of APA’s Science Government Relations Office for more information about this event and APA’s advocacy for NSF.

Six questions for Kate Sweeny

A psychologist shares her thoughts on a researcher’s role in advocating for science.

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Kate Sweeny of the University of California, Riverside represented the American Psychological Association (APA) at the 24th Annual Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) Capitol Hill Exhibition on May 9, 2018.  Kate’s work focuses on the anxiety associated with waiting for big news, like medical test results or the outcome of a job interview. APA staff asked her a few questions about her research and her experience communicating her work to policymakers on Capitol Hill.

Read more about Kate Sweeny’s meetings with congressional offices and her participation in the CNSF exhibition.

1. What is the most exciting finding from your research?

Recently, I'm most excited about our success in identifying some good ways to make waiting easier. Most people find waiting for important news to be a stressful experience, often even worse than facing the bad news that might come at the end of the wait. Our research has revealed that many of the coping strategies people try out while waiting are ineffective, so we've been hunting for some good tips that can bolster those coping efforts.

Thus far, we have good evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation, which serves to keep people in the present moment rather than thinking back on what they could have done differently or how their life will go if they get good or bad news.

We've also found that "flow" activities, which are things we do that fully engage and absorb our attention, can really make the time fly by and thus make waiting easier.

These and other strategies for waiting well can both help people to worry less and, as a result, protect people's sleep and health during these stressful moments in life.

2. Why do you think events like the CNSF Exhibition are important?

Far too often, academic researchers spend nearly all of their time talking only to each other--a sin of which I am certainly guilty. It can be challenging to get outside of the familiar world of academia and find ways to communicate the importance of our findings to people who care about the real-world implications and applications of our work. However, I would argue that the benefits of descending the ivory tower are well worth those challenges.

The CNSF Exhibition forced me to think about my research in new ways, moving past a general sense of "isn't this neat?" and considering why politicians and policymakers should devote their limited resources of time and money to the work that I do. We scientists need to do a better job of communicating and advocating for our value to society, and the CNSF Exhibition provided a perfect opportunity to take steps in that direction.

3. What unique perspective can psychologists bring to policy?

Put simply, if human behavior stands in the way of your policy goals, then you need psychological science. Countless policy initiatives fall into this category: increasing access to and utilization of health services, increasing equality and reducing discriminatory practices, optimizing law enforcement efforts and reducing crime, and boosting participation in elections through voting and involvement with campaigns, among many others.

Psychological scientists are uniquely suited to identify the relevant cognitive, motivational, and emotional processes at play in any given behavior, and they are trained to use the very best methods to test questions about how best to increase or reduce behaviors of interest to policymakers.

4. What impact does federal funding have on psychology and science overall?

Federal funding is critical for the advancement of psychological science, as it is to the advancement of science as a whole. Most research costs money to conduct, and few people can fully fund these endeavors through local or non-governmental sources. When federal funding is cut, science slows down, the scope of research shrinks, and studies become less ambitious. 

5. What lessons would you provide to others looking to engage policymakers in DC or at the state level?

Just do it! Everyone is busy, but the benefits of communicating the value of our science to those who make decisions about funding levels and targets are far greater than the effort required to do so. Better yet, thinking about your research from the perspective of policymakers forces you to deeply consider how your research can make the biggest impact, which will almost certainly strengthen your research efforts going forward. 

6. What, if anything, surprised you about presenting your research to Congressional members and their staff?

I was pleasantly surprised at the level of interest I saw in the congressional members and staffers with whom I spoke. They have so much going on at all times, so many people and ideas vying for their attention, yet they seemed truly engaged with the value of science and excited about the findings that were on display at the exhibition. It made the experience incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. 

NIH announces new initiative to address opioid epidemic

Plan dovetails with APA recommendations to president’s opioid commission.

On April 4, 2018, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced an ambitious new plan to stem the tide of the opioid epidemic.  Through the HEAL Initiative (Helping to End Addiction Long-term), NIH is nearly doubling its commitment to opioid research from $600 million in 2016 to $1.1 billion in 2018.

In remarks delivered at the seventh National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Collins said: "Every day, more than 115 Americans die after overdosing on opioids, that is a four-fold increase since 2000, and the numbers continue to climb.  NIH has been deeply invested in efforts to counter this crisis through research, but we are determined to do even more. Over the last year, NIH has worked with stakeholders and experts across scientific disciplines and sectors to identify areas of opportunity for research to combat the opioid crisis. The focus of these discussions has centered on ways to reduce the over prescription of opioids, accelerate development of effective non-opioid therapies for pain, and provide more flexible options for treating opioid addiction. NIH is committed to bringing the full power of the biomedical research enterprise to bear on this crisis."

Among the priority areas Collins identified were several that the American Psychological Association (APA) had advocated for in its response last year to the Draft Interim Report of the President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, including expanding therapeutic options for treating addiction, increasing access to non-pharmacologic treatments for chronic pain, an expanded focus on neonatal abstinence syndrome, and integrating substance use treatment within primary care and criminal justice settings. 

On the latter, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) said:  "With these additional resources, we can develop more customized, high-quality treatments for addiction and pain, as well as harness implementation science to bring evidence-based changes to our healthcare system, including treatment for those in the criminal justice environment." 

Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the lead NIH institute on pain, highlighted another area APA had voiced concern about, the transition from acute to chronic pain: " A major focus will be to understand why some people go from acute to chronic pain, with the intent to prevent that transition.  Importantly, the Initiative will drive the science to enable the development of powerful, non-addictive pain treatments that would limit the need for opioid medications in the future."

Missing from the rollout of the HEAL Initiative was any reference to NIDA’s highly successful community prevention research portfolio, which has demonstrated decreases in prescription drug misuse in rigorously designed randomized controlled trials.  APA will continue to be a vocal advocate for primary prevention research as the HEAL Initiative moves forward.

For more information on APA’s work on the opioid crisis, contact Geoff Mumford of APA’s Science Government Relations Office. 

Science fares well in FY 2018 appropriations bill

Funding is healthy, and NIH clinical trial policy is suspended.

[updated 3/27/18]

The congressional appropriations committees have labored mightily and produced a $1.3 trillion final funding bill for Fiscal Year 2018, the current fiscal year. In February Congress raised the budget caps that had made reaching agreement on a full year’s spending legislation difficult. With a two-year budget agreement and extra money in hand, the appropriations committees produced a bill that passed both houses of Congress and was signed by the President before the temporary funding bill expired.

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President’s Budget Picks a Few Science Favorites

But Congress Will Have the Last Word

There has been quite a bit of budget-related news this month.  Last week Congress passed a two-year agreement to raise the budget caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011, allowing for $312 billion in additional spending on defense and nondefense accounts in Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019.  This is a major victory for research advocates who weighed in on many occasions about inadequate budgets.  Many were frustrated with years of sub-inflationary budget increases and long months during which the agencies operated on temporary funding authority, as they continue to do for FY 18 (through March 23). The budget agreement is not ideal, but it allows room for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to advance funding bills that promise to be friendlier to research budgets than the Continuing Resolutions have been (friendlier, too, than the Administration has been).  For example, the budget deal calls for an additional $2 billion for the National Institutes of Health over the next two years, though the FY 18 omnibus funding bill has not yet appeared for final action. See this update for more details on the budget agreement.

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FDA initiates review of all research with nonhuman animals

APA raises concerns about precedent, channels for scientific advice, and importance of animal models.

In a statement released on January 26, 2018, Scott Gottlieb, MD, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that he had initiated an “independent, third-party investigation of the agency’s animal research programs.”  However, he provided no details about who would conduct this investigation or what processes it would follow.

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