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

dettmer-small.jpg

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.

 Author email: amanda.dettmer@yale.edu