Developmental milestones – The ABCD study comes of age

Psychologists play pivotal role in landmark study.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study is an ambitious project to image the brains of more than 10,000 nine- and ten-year-old children and follow their physical, cognitive and emotional development for ten years through early adulthood.   Brain magnetic resonance imaging [PDF, 3.1MB] (MRI), both structural and functional, will be conducted at baseline and biannually throughout the course of the study.  The study recently completed enrollment and that milestone was celebrated this fall at the study’s third annual meeting in La Jolla, CA. The study is being led by psychologists Sandra Brown and Terry Jernigan from the ABCD Coordinating Center at the University of California San Diego and across 21 additional sites nationwide.  Twenty-seven of the 39 Principal Investigators are psychologists.

The study is designed to answer a range of questions about the developmental trajectory of substance use, normative mental health, and mental illness in children and adolescents. The study represents the most visible product of the functional integration of substance use research at the National Institutes of Health which is organized under the rubric of Collaborative Research on Addictions at NIH (CRAN). The $300 million study which receives the largest share of its funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, followed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Cancer Institute, now includes support from several other federal partners.  It was conceived as a natural follow-on to a smaller longitudinal study of the effects of alcohol on the developing brain (the National Consortium on Alcohol and Neurodevelopment in Adolescence or NCANDA).

Recruitment included over-sampling to ensure adequate representation of ethnic/racial minorities from the general population (n=10,148) and 1727 individuals who were identical twins/triplets for a total of 11,875 participants. While recruitment was the initial challenge, retention of an adolescent population will be daunting. Brown and Jernigan are targeting minimums of 85% retention at each study site and 90% overall (current retention is 99.52%). The study promotes an open science model encouraging widespread use of the archived anonymized data. The first wave of data released in February included basic participant demographics, assessments of physical and mental health, substance use, culture and environment, neurocognition, tabulated structural and functional neuroimaging data, and minimally processed brain images, as well as biological data such as pubertal hormone analyses for the first 4500 participants.

The annual meeting provided an opportunity for the investigators to discuss early findings and design strategies emerging from the first two years of the study including the examination of psychotic-like experiences in young children, development of gender identity, screen media activity effects on physical and mental health, and how socioeconomic status and air pollution may affect cognitive development.

APA and Congressional Support

APA was an early supporter of the study and submitted report language [PDF, 3MB] that was accepted verbatim by the House Appropriations Subcommittee that guided NIH appropriations for Fiscal Year 2016:

“Adolescent Behavioral and Cognitive Development.--The committee applauds the Collaborative Research on Addictions at NIH (CRAN) initiative and the launch of the Adolescent Behavioral and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. Unique in its scope and duration, the ABCD will recruit 10,000 youth before they begin using alcohol, marijuana, nicotine and other drugs, and follow them over 10 years into early adulthood to assess how substance use affects the trajectory of the developing brain.  The Committee commends the study design which will use advanced brain imaging as well as psychological and behavioral research tools to evaluate brain structure and function and track substance use, academic achievement, IQ, cognitive skills, and mental health over time.”  

Once underway, APA became one of the early Partner Organizations helping to disseminate information about the study and educate members of Congress about the value of prospective longitudinal research designs.  Such studies are vulnerable to competing funding demands as was the case with the National Children’s Study, terminated by the NIH Director in 2014. The ABCD study is off to a great start but will require vigilance from the advocacy community to ensure it’s allowed to continue to completion. Geoff Mumford of APA’s Science Government Relations Office serves on the ABCD National Liaison Board [PDF, 446K].

Q&A with Elizabeth Albro of the Institute of Education Sciences

A conversation with the new Commissioner of the IES National Center for Education Research. 


As the newly appointed Commissioner of the National Center for Education Research (NCER) within the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), psychologist Elizabeth Albro is no stranger to education research.   Albro has been at IES, the research arm of the Department of Education, for more than 15 years.  NCER, one of the two research centers at IES, supports rigorous research that addresses the nation's most pressing education needs, from early childhood to adult education.

Albro spoke with Craig Fisher, of the American Psychological Association’s Science Government Relations Office, about her new role, as well as how education research has evolved, the contributions that psychologists have made, and why scientists should consider engaging in public service.

To start I wanted to say congratulations on your appointment as Commissioner of NCER.  What will be your new responsibilities as Commissioner?

Thank you.  I’m excited to step into this new role! My new responsibilities are twofold. First, to oversee the work of the research center and to make sure that what we are funding continues to serve NCER’s mission and purpose - to accumulate knowledge about processes of teaching and learning and the policies and systems that support education from early childhood through adulthood; and, second, to work collaboratively with IES leadership to ensure that our collective investments enable us to meet our mission as an Institute.

What are some of the key areas that have changed in education research since you first began at IES 15 years ago?

One of the most important changes has been the accumulation of knowledge generated from experimental studies in education. This body of work has seeded conversations about what works in education. At the same time as methodological rigor has improved in education, I have seen new communities of scientists bringing their expertise to addressing the challenges of improving education outcomes.

Cognitive scientists interested in learning are now testing their theories across the developmental spectrum, and in the contexts where students are learning – classrooms, online environments, after-school settings. There has been an increasing interest in the prevention science community in understanding the social-emotional contexts of learning and the strategies that schools can employ to support students who struggle to meet the behavioral expectations of school.

Linguists and experts in public policy are tackling the questions of how our education systems are serving English learners. And, scholars from many disciplinary homes are contributing to a growing body of evidence examining how to improve postsecondary access and completion for all learners. 

Finally, there is an explicit recognition that to move education forward, research needs to leverage expertise of individuals across many different disciplines.

What do you see as some of the exciting new developments in education research?

There is a growing recognition of the importance of explicitly tackling questions of why an intervention works or does not work. This involves examining the conditions under which an intervention is being implemented – who are the students, what are the characteristics of the school context, what do the teachers delivering the intervention know are a few of the questions that are being explicitly discussed.

This set of questions is embedded, I believe, in the current conversation about replication that is happening across scientific communities. A recent article by IES colleagues published in Educational Researcher examined to what degree IES has been supporting replication research over the past 15 years or so. The authors proposed a classification system that we hope will help the field think about the ways in which replication can serve to build our understanding of what works, for whom, and under what conditions.

Another exciting development across the federal research agencies is the move to open science. In 2013, [former OSTP Director] John Holdren put out a memo about increasing public access to federal funded research, and that work continues. Projects funded in 2013 will be beginning to end, and we will begin to have restricted use data sets becoming available for researchers to use.  Researchers will have the ability to reanalyze data, explore the data that others have collected, and to ask different questions of that data, which is going to provide opportunities to rethink and ask new questions of the completed projects.

What do you see as some of the biggest contributions of psychologists in education research to classroom/education practice?

Psychology covers so many areas, and representatives from every subfield are IES grantees. Psychologists who study learning – cognitive psychologists, experimental psychologists, developmental psychologists, social psychologists, and educational psychologists to name just a few – are tackling critical questions in education.

Within the Cognition and Student Learning portfolio, we have seen basic principles long established in the experimental literature on learning and memory tested (and usually affirmed) in the classroom. Principles such as spacing practice over time, actively generating knowledge through quizzing, aligning visual and verbal presentations of taught concepts, have been tested with students in social studies and mathematics classrooms.

Another area where many psychologists have contributed to education is in understanding the social and behavioral context of the classroom and school. In this IES portfolio, psychologists are examining the best ways to support students’ development of a growth mindset toward learning, how teachers can create classrooms where all learners are engaged in learning, and how schools establish policies and practices that support opportunities for all students.

What advice would you give researchers in the field who may be called to public service, such as working at a federal agency, serving on an advisory board, or being part of a review committee?

Just do it!  I came to DC for a year as an American Association for the Advancement of Science/Society for Research in Child Development executive branch policy fellow because I’d always been curious about the intersection of research practice and policy.  I found the work fascinating and loved engaging with the community broadly and building bridges across disciplines.  Working in a federal agency has transformed my understanding of how many of the critical levers of our society work.  

If you’re asked to serve on an advisory board or be part of a review committee, that’s an opportunity for you to get a window into this process. I’m here 16 years later so clearly, I thought this was a good thing to do! There may also be other ways to think about public service, not only at the federal level, such as serving on a school board or in local government.I would encourage every researcher to find a place where they can contribute to public service.

President signs appropriations bill for Departments of Health and Human Services, Education and Defense

Solid increases enacted for health and defense research

The president has signed into law the nearly $800 billion “minibus” bill that funds the Departments of HHS, Education and Defense, along with the Continuing Resolution which included the seven remaining funding bills the House and Senate had not passed. This was done with two days to spare before Fiscal Year 2019 begins on October 1. You can see colorful details of this spending below courtesy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

National Institutes of Health. Congress provided NIH with a $2 billion increase. This is the fourth year in a row the NIH budget has been increased by at least that amount. For FY 2019, NIH receives a better than five percent boost, and while much of the increase is targeted to specific programs, every individual institute’s budget is increased by at least 2.6 percent. Psychologists should note:

  • Alzheimer’s research receives an increase of $425 million, bringing total spending to $2.3 billion. The National Institute on Aging would thus get the most substantial of all the institutes’ increases, a jump of 19.8 percent.

  • The Cancer Moonshot research initiative is allocated $400 million, an increase of $100 million.

  • The agreement includes $1.3 billion total for research into opioid addiction, alternatives, and pain management.

  • BRAIN Initiative funding rises to $429 million, matching House and Senate figures. Precision medicine funding rises to $376 million.

  • Conferees rejected the recommendation from the Administration's FY 2019 budget to consolidate three other federal agencies within NIH (including the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality).

The AAAS has developed a useful chart showing the past twenty years of NIH funding, highlighting a few of NIH’s 27 institutes and centers.  

NIH image 1.jpg

With continued funding increases beginning in 2016, the NIH is now $16.1 million above FY 2013 sequestration levels in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While CDC facilities received a large one-time boost in last year’s omnibus, this bill gives CDC programs a modest 1.6 percent increase. And yet, final CDC funding is 29.6 percent or $1.7 billion above the Administration’s budget request.  Congress added $5 million to assess the infectious disease consequences of the national opioid epidemic. The bill also provides level funding of $210 million for CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, which had been in jeopardy. 

Institute for Education Sciences. IES in the Department of Education will receive $615 million, up $2 million over the FY 2018 enacted level.  

Department of Defense. DOD science and technology funding was boosted across all accounts and branches. Total DOD S&T funding rises by $1.1 billion above FY 2018, a 7.6 percent increase, and $2.3 billion above the Administration request (see AAAS chart below).

Defense S&T (excluding medical research) will reach its highest point in FY 2019 since FY 2006, adjusting for inflation. DOD basic research funding will likely reach an all-time high in total inflation-adjusted dollars. Basic DoD research received an eight percent or $186 million increase, with similar relative jumps across all military branches.

The bill includes an 8.2 percent increase for Defense Research Science program elements to $1.6 billion total. The Minerva Initiative  received $2 million above the request or $12.8 million total, a 25 percent increase above FY 2018 levels.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) scored an 11.7 percent increase above FY 2018 levels. That includes $30 million for the Electronics Resurgence Initiative, $40 million for artificial intelligence research, and $30 million for hypersonic weapons development and transition.

DoD Image 1.jpg

Legislators provided $2.2 billion for Defense Health Program research, development, test, and evaluation, a 6.9 percent increase from FY 2018. The conferees added substantial funding for peer reviewed medical research across an array of disease areas, especially cancers; total funding is slightly above $1.0 billion this year.

DoD Image 2.jpg

Science funding in this legislation is a bright spot. It would not be possible had Congress not adopted a two-year agreement to spend above the budget caps in FY 2018 and 2019.  The Budget Control Act of 2011, with its austere spending caps and sequestration provisions, remains in law, and without a temporary or permanent fix, science funding and other programs will not be so fortunate in FY 2020.  That’s why APA and fellow scientific societies will continue calling on Congress to “Raise the Caps” in the next fiscal year.  

More than ever, our government needs scientists in its midst

The potential of the APA Executive Branch Science Fellowship to influence policy in the short- and long-term.

By Amanda M. Dettmer


Dr. Dettmer is an Associate Research Scientist at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, CT.

The impact of a child’s early environment on later social, cognitive, and behavioral development is well understood in the context of parenting and caregiving. My own research in this area, relying on nonhuman primate models, has shed light on the influences of parenting interactions and early social environments on subsequent cognition, social rank, and chronic stress.

However, it was my foray into local politics that sparked my interest in science policy: as the Governing Council chair for my local public Montessori charter school in Frederick, Maryland – where my husband taught and my children were fortunate to attend – I had direct interactions with the Frederick County Board of Education (BOE) dealing with education policy. In observing my husband teach, my children learn, and the county and BOE govern, it became clear to me that children’s school environment, where they spend the majority of their waking hours, must be impacting their brain and development as well. But education was a new arena for me professionally.

How could I gain more expertise at this intersection of early schooling, brain and behavioral development, and policy? The American Psychological Association’s Executive Branch Science Fellowship was the answer. I was incredibly honored to be selected as the 2017-18 Executive Branch Science Fellow, and the experience was more rewarding than I expected. I learned the intricacies of education research and its impacts on federal policymaking and funding, I made significant contributions to my host agency, and I left the Fellowship with invaluable knowledge and a superb new network of colleagues that I now carry with me in my research.

Institute of Education Sciences

My primary placement was at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), which is the research agency of the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The dedicated civil servants at IES, many of whom have been there for many years, made clear that, despite the current political climate, our country has dedicated people working every day to improve the education our children receive.

IES was the perfect fellowship placement for me given my background as a developmental psychologist with a burgeoning interest in education policy. During my year at IES, I worked primarily in the National Center for Education Research (NCER), one of the four centers of IES. NCER supports rigorous research that addresses significant education issues in our country. I worked on a number of projects at NCER, all of which increased my understanding of education policy and the value that social scientists bring to the government: 

  •  Cognition and Student Learning (CASL) research supports work that increases our understanding of how the brain works to inform and improve education practices. Here, I analyzed the portfolio of funded research grants from 2002-2017 for an invited paper to the Journal of Cognition and Development, thus identifying potential areas for future funding. I also organized a Technical Working Group consisting of the nation’s leading education researchers, educators, and education technology developers to probe the areas of greatest need for understanding the intersection between neuroscience and education, again identifying potential funding priorities for IES moving forward.

  • The Early Learning Network (ELN) is a nationwide consortium of researchers seeking to advance the understanding of policies and practices that influence the achievement gap and early learning success in children in grades K-3. For ELN, I analyzed the progress of five states that had been granted funding by ED to either develop or enhance their preschool programs, thereby identifying areas in which the ELN could provide expert technical assistance for the grantees to achieve their goals.

Toward the end of my Fellowship, I developed a rubric to evaluate the effectiveness of Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships (RPP) in education research. RPPs are programs that IES funds to support partnerships between research institutions and state or local education agencies to study high-priority areas with respect to improving student education outcomes. My evaluation system is now being used to determine future funding levels for these important grants. It is perhaps here more than any other area during my Fellowship that I felt my contribution as a scientist would have the most direct impact on policymaking, both for federal funding and for state and local education agencies.

A new kind of scientist

Although these are just some of the ways I worked to learn about and influence policymaking during my Fellowship, I feel the experience was more impactful for me as a scientist. I was fortunate to be working side-by-side with some of the nation’s brightest, most generous, and most dedicated people. It is so easy to think of the federal government as a big, faceless machine, but these individuals, whom I now consider both colleagues and friends, were eager to work with me to tackle the country’s ever-growing education issues. Their continued sense of duty is one I take with me back to science. The methodology and theory of education research, as well as my newfound knowledge of education policymaking, now shapes some of my new scientific inquiries.

Now more than ever, it’s clear that children’s well-being and optimal development depends on scientists with a solid understanding of the federal government. Having completed this Fellowship and taking a new position as a research scientist at the Yale University Child Study Center, I am now better prepared to tackle pressing questions about child development. I am also better prepared to translate research findings into policy, and I am eager to shape my science in this new direction. I thank the APA and its staff for supporting me in this Fellowship.

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A psychological scientist joins the chorus voicing support for NIH

Advocates meet with their Members of Congress to urge increased funding for medical research.

By David C. Schwebel

Dr. Schwebel is university professor of psychology and associate dean at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The Rally for Medical Research is an annual event designed to bring together the wide-ranging groups who support National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded medical research. As psychologists know quite well, medical research – including that conducted by psychologists – undeniably saves and improves lives. At the 2018 Rally for Medical Research, I joined patients, physicians, scientists, and members representing dozens of other organizations, traveling from across the United States to meet with their Members of Congress and share their personal stories to help the Senators and Representatives recognize the value of NIH-funded medical research.

I am a pediatric psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and I was fortunate to work with the American Psychological Association (APA) and participate in the Rally on September 12-13, 2018. The process was simple. I created a short biographical sketch on my research program that implements behavioral strategies to prevent unintentional child injuries. My description included summaries of several current and recent NIH grants and emphasized their value to improve American lives.

On the first day of the Rally in Washington, DC, I attended an advocacy training session with rally organizers who provided guidance on how to tell a compelling story about how NIH funding has impacted me and my research program, and we reviewed the talking points for the meetings with our Members of Congress.  The training was followed by a terrific reception on Capitol Hill highlighted by talks from Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS).  There was also an inspiring statement by NIH Director Francis Collins with whom I briefly chatted to thank for NIH’s support of my laboratory. Another big plus of the first day in DC was the opportunity to meet the rest of my Alabama delegation “team” – our skilled government relations team leader and two Birmingham-area cancer survivors.

 David Schwebel visiting the office of Richard Shelby (R-AL)

David Schwebel visiting the office of Richard Shelby (R-AL)

The Rally Hill Day started with a breakfast together, followed by four meetings with Members of Congress “on the Hill.” Our Alabama team began the day with a senior staffer in Sen. Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) office, a crucial visit given Senator Shelby’s position as member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees NIH funding. My teammates shared their powerful stories of surviving cancer and the impact of NIH-funded research on immunotherapy and cryopreservation. I offered my own story, a description of my research program and examples of how it translated to save and improve children’s lives in Alabama, across America, and throughout the world. The staffer listened intently. Our pitch was an easy sell: Senator Shelby is known to be a strong supporter of NIH.

We met next with a staffer in Sen. Doug Jones’ (D-AL) office. We repeated our stories, and the reception was similar: A supportive office – this time on the Democratic side of the aisle rather than Republican. The visit was productive. Rain was falling in Washington, so our experienced team leader negotiated the underground tunnel systems for us, crossing under the Capitol from the Senate to House office buildings. Fueled by lunch, our next meeting was with a staffer in Rep. Terri Sewell’s (D-AL) office, one of the two representatives who represents the Birmingham metro area. Our stories were again told, and we left with positive feedback.

Our last meeting of the day was in Rep. Gary Palmer’s (R-AL) office, and here awaited a treat: rather than a staffer, we would meet with Rep. Palmer himself. We engaged in a friendly and lengthy interchange, telling our stories and hearing the Congressman’s perspectives. Unlike the others, Rep. Palmer expressed some hesitation about our requests to support the Senate-proposed $2 billion increase for NIH, suggesting he needed to see the full bill before he could support it. I was not devastated though; we had convincingly told our story and Rep. Palmer listened carefully, assuring us he would consider the bill carefully.

At each of the four visits, I offered to host the Members of Congress for a visit and tour of my university laboratory. Each expressed interest, and perhaps that will happen. Even if it does not, I felt that I had delivered a key message to the officials who represent me, my district, state, and country: NIH research, including that done by psychologists, helps us live happier, healthier, and longer lives. It must remain a national priority. And I found the individuals elected to serve – two Democrats and two Republicans – were receptive to hearing that message and ensuring the citizens they represent are served well by psychological science.

Thanks to APA for supporting my travel to the Rally. I have only vague memories of the last (and only other) time I walked the hallways of our congressional office buildings, as a middle-schooler on the all-American school trip to Washington, DC, when I and my classmates met for a photo-op with our congressman. Several decades between visits was far too long, and I expect my next visit to advocate will come sooner. Our voices as psychologists must be heard to help shape the direction of our country.