Applying the science of policy attitudes to science policy

Leveraging a research background to contribute to the federal science policy process.

By Laura Van Berkel, PhD


A path to advocacy

Insights from psychology and social sciences are key to solving complex policy challenges facing science, the nation, and the world. As a social psychologist with expertise in political psychology and social cognition, I studied how basic cognitive processes influence political and policy attitudes, in such areas as social equality and environmental decision-making.

During my graduate studies and post-doctoral work, in addition to my research, I took advantage of opportunities to get more involved in public policy and advocacy events.  I participated in a Legislative Engagement Day hosted by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI, APA Division 9) and in an organization in Germany, where I helped register American citizens living abroad to vote and trained members on evidence-based political communication. I also had the opportunity to communicate research findings through several national media outlets, such as National Public Radio and The Conversation.

Although my research and advocacy experiences provided a basis for understanding attitudes toward policy, I had little understanding of how public policy was developed and communicated to the public. In addition to learning how policy was formed and how to better influence, evaluate, and communicate policy, I was interested in exploring a career in government where I could promote the value of social and behavioral research and help inform evidence-based policy. The APA Executive Branch Science Fellowship provided the perfect opportunity to learn about and connect my research skills to the world of science policy.

Science policy at the National Science Foundation

My fellowship placement was at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE). In this position I contributed to connecting the public to research in four main ways:

  • Data Management Plans and public access policy
    Researchers are required to submit a Data Management Plan (DMP) to NSF as part of proposals that specify how they will manage data from NSF grants, including plans for data sharing and storage. However, it was unclear to what extent researchers were following NSF guidelines and what common practices exist for managing data in DMPs.  Thus, I evaluated the content of DMPs in SBE and produced a report and presentation about the results that was distributed to SBE leadership and the NSF Public Access Working Group. Results from this study may shape data management training, evaluation of DMPs across NSF, and program solicitations.  

  • NSF 2026 Idea Machine
    The Idea Machine—an offshoot of one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas—is a public competition to inform NSF’s strategic priorities and research agenda in the coming decade. I evaluated the characteristics of entries and entrants to the Idea Machine, provided tentative recommendations on advancing entries for further consideration, and assisted in organizing the internal judging process. This work will help NSF more effectively target public outreach and shape NSF’s funding priorities. 

  • Communicate the value of the social, behavioral and economic sciences
    SBE sciences affect national security, disaster preparedness, well-being, safety, and more. A group of SBE staff work together on a communications team dedicated to conveying this societal impact to the public and to policymakers. As part of this team, I wrote a narrative story about how NSF-funded science has improved the well-being of Americans in consultation with researchers and affected community members.  This story will appear later this year on the SBE website and help demonstrate the societal return on investments in SBE sciences.

  • Science of Broadening Participation
    SBE supports research on the Science of Broadening Participation (SBP)—the theories, methods, and analyses that help understand factors that enhance or hinder broad participation in sectors of society. As a member of the SBP working group, I helped edit a program announcement, compile information about project outcomes from prior funding, and contributed to funding decision discussions. This work contributed to advancing SBP as a long-term funding program and communicating program outcomes of this important research area to agency leadership and policymakers.

Reflections on the year

Through these and other projects, I learned the complex process of managing federal grants and communicating the value of basic science. The fellowship provided the opportunity to impact NSF’s grant planning and evaluation processes and gave me a front-row seat to learn how NSF determines and implements large-scale strategic research priorities. I am grateful to the dedicated NSF staff who guided me throughout the year—they are as thoughtful as one could hope for in developing science policy and in selecting reviewers, panelists, and ultimately grants to be funded.

The fellowship also provided the invaluable opportunity to learn broadly about behavioral and social science careers in non-academic sectors. Over the fellowship year, I met with social scientists in the federal government, local government, think tanks, international financial institutions, non-profit and for-profit research institutes, and congressional offices. I learned there are many diverse and expanding career opportunities for psychologists in policy.

Next steps

After such a positive experience during my fellowship year, I was hooked on policy work and wanted to understand how science impacts policy in other agencies. I am now an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow placed at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Center for Excellence in Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance. In this position, I will work on social and behavioral change, helping field missions integrate insights from social and behavioral science into programming. The topics I will work on include elections, empowerment and inclusion of marginalized groups, human rights, and governance. As an APA Executive Branch Science Fellow at NSF, I got a taste of the federal policy process and I am excited to learn how policy is formulated and implemented in an agency with a different mission and goals. I would like to thank the APA staff for providing me with this opportunity to start building a career in public policy.