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.