Showing Capitol Hill the importance of the National Institutes of Health

A psychologist participates in the Rally for Medical Research.

 By Susan S. Woodhouse, Lehigh University

Susan Woodhouse, Ph.D. and Representative Charlie Dent (R-PA)

Susan Woodhouse, Ph.D. and Representative Charlie Dent (R-PA)

 On September 21-22, 2016, I took part in the 2016 Rally for Medical Research in Washington, DC on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA). The Rally for Medical Research is an annual advocacy event in which researchers, clinicians, patients and survivors from all over the country, representing about 300 different institutions and advocacy organizations, gather on Capitol Hill to speak with their members of Congress about importance of funding for research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

 I am a psychologist who studies how parenting affects the development of infants and young children in low-income families. My research focuses on what works best to support good parenting in these families so that children can get a good start in life, develop the psychological and physiological building blocks of emotion regulation, avoid later mental health problems and be ready for school. The goal is to build knowledge that will help us design better parenting interventions that lead to optimal child outcomes.

 I was asked to participate by APA, because my research is funded by a $2.1 million grant from the NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Thus, I was able to speak with my members of Congress and their staffs about the vital role NIH funding plays in supporting research, how that research contributes to public health (including mental health) and how NIH funding is beneficial to my congressional district and state.

 Prior to the rally, I worked with APA government relations staff to prepare an easy-to-understand one-page description outlining my research program and its direct relevance to key public health issues. The one-pager was left with congressional staffers after each meeting. I also participated in two training sessions by the rally organizers: one on understanding what is involved in a meeting with one’s senator or representative, and the other on how to effectively communicate the rally’s main message about the importance of robust, sustained and predictable funding for NIH. I also had the opportunity to meet the other rally participants, including those from my home state of Pennsylvania, and together we all attended a reception on Capitol Hill where members of Congress addressed the participants about the importance of health science funding.

 The next day, my team of rally participants from Pennsylvania, met with staffers from the offices of Sen. Bob Casey and then Sen. Pat Toomey.  In these meetings, researchers, patients and advocates had an opportunity to briefly share their stories. Those who had survived grave health conditions had very touching, personal stories about the beneficial impacts that NIH-funded research and discoveries had on their lives. As a researcher, I emphasized the public health applications of my work for addressing mental health and educational disparities among young children. I also touched on the economic impacts of having federally-funded research within the state. For example, my grant not only funds several students, but also employs fifteen staff people hired from the community.

 After these larger meetings in the offices of our senators, we broke out into smaller groups and went to visit our members in the House of Representatives. One of the highlights of the day was having the opportunity to meet with my own congressman, Rep. Charlie Dent, who took time from his busy schedule to speak directly with me about my research and the importance of funding for NIH. I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak directly with Rep. Dent, particularly because of his role on the committee in the House of Representatives that appropriates money for NIH.

 I want to thank APA for the support it provided me during the event. This was my first experience in doing science advocacy work. I know a lot about how to do research, but had some real preparation to do in order to be ready for my day on Capitol Hill!  I was not quite sure what to expect, so I am grateful to both the APA Science Government Relations Office and the rally organizers for providing me with all the information and training I needed to become a successful advocate.  I was especially happy to be able to have an opportunity to represent the value of psychological research as a key part of medical research at NIH. I hope my participation encourages other psychologists to get involved, and I look forward to hearing about how others find ways to advocate for psychological science at the federal level.