Science advocacy is a topic that typically does not garner much attention—or excitement—for us as psychologists. Additionally, as psychologists we usually have many other things at the top of our to-do lists, including research, clinical work, supervision, teaching, or writing. Science advocacy rarely figures on that list. At the same time, if national decision makers simply do not understand the value of science, then they will fail to ensure that research funding that supports scientific work and the people who do the work of building new knowledge, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and community staff members. Psychological science, including research on psychotherapy, is important to the country as a whole because our research can have important practical implications for addressing key issues, such as the prevention and treatment of mental health problems, prevention and treatment of health issues, and addressing health/mental health disparities.
Despite the importance of the empirical grounding for psychotherapy and the psychotherapy relationship, advocacy for psychological science is a topic rarely discussed or taught in graduate school, and typically not part of daily life as a faculty member. I know my own doctoral and postdoctoral training focused a great deal on how to ask good questions, how to do good science, how to responsibly interpret scientific results, and how to translate research findings into reasonable policy and practice decisions. My mentors emphasized the importance of the dialogue between practice, research, and policy so both practice and policy needs can inform the research questions we pursue and research can then be used to inform practice and policy. Advocacy for clients or for communities was at least mentioned—but advocacy for science was not. In my life as a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology program at Lehigh University, among the many duties and service obligations nowhere does one find the item, “advocate for science.” The end result is that most of us—including, until recently, myself—have little idea about what it would mean to advocate for science or whether this is something in which we should be involved. In this article, my aim is to describe my recent experiences in science advocacy work, discuss the rationale for the importance of science advocacy, and point out resources for anyone who may be interested in getting involved in science advocacy.
On September 21-22, 2016, I took part in the 2016 Rally for Medical Research in Washington, DC. The rally is an annual science advocacy event that has been taking place each September since 2013. People from all over the country, representing about 300 different organizations, gathered on Capitol Hill to speak with their members of Congress about the importance of funding the National Institutes of Health (NIH) so that the research we need to improve our nation’s health can move forward.
My research focuses on how parenting affects the development of infants and young children in low-income families. I also study what works to support good parenting in these families so children can get a good start in life, develop the physiological building blocks of emotion regulation, avoid later mental health problems, and be ready for school. I currently have a $2.4 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) of the NIH. Without the research funding I received from the NICHD it would be impossible for me to do this work. I was able talk about my work with my members of Congress to help them understand more about how vital NIH funding is for research contributing to public health (including mental health), and how NIH funding is beneficial both for my state and for the country as a whole
This was my first experience in doing science advocacy work. I know much about how to do research—but had some real preparation to do in order to be ready for my day on Capitol Hill. When Dr. Craig Fisher, a psychologist who works for the American Psychological Association (APA), in the Science Government Relations Office, first contacted me about participating in the rally, I was not quite sure what to expect. I was grateful to both the APA and personnel from the rally for providing me with all the information and training I needed to prepare.
APA’s Science Advocacy Toolkit (http://advocacy.apascience.org/) was a wonderful way to get started in learning about science advocacy. This website has useful information about the need to advocate for science, practical information about various ways you can engage in science advocacy, as well as links to sign up for advocacy alerts that can help you better understand key issues that have arisen and would benefit from a timely response. The Toolkit has information on everything from how to present your message to how to contact your representatives in Congress to how to make a visit to Capitol Hill to advocate for science in person. I had never seen myself as someone who would go to Capitol Hill to engage in in-person advocacy, but I agreed to do it because I strongly believe that it is important to take a stand for science.
My first step in getting ready to was to prepare a one-page description of my research program. This description, which everyone calls the one-pager on Capitol Hill, outlined my research and how the scientific questions are directly relevant to key public health issues. My research focuses on understanding which aspects of parenting best predict later infant outcomes in attachment, physiological indicators of stress reactivity, physiological indicators of emotion regulation, and early signs of mental health problems. The goal is to build knowledge that will help us improve psychotherapy for parents so as to obtain optimal child (and parent) outcomes. The one-pager was left behind with congressional staffers after each meeting, so it needed to be in user-friendly language that any layperson could easily understand.
Next, I participated in a webinar organized by the Rally for Medical Research. This webinar provided me with all the information I needed to understand what is involved in a meeting with one’s Senator or Representative. The webinar prepared me about what to expect from the meetings and how to navigate the Capitol Hill protocol.
The day before the Rally itself, I attended a one-hour training offered by Rally organizers on how to effectively communicate our message about the importance of robust, sustained, and predictable funding for health-related science. At first I worried that it would be hard to remember the specific policy related points I needed to emphasize in my meetings. But once I understood more about the history of NIH funding by Congress, the talking points started to feel clear in my mind. I met the other rally participants from Pennsylvania, and then we all headed over to a reception on Capitol Hill. The members of Congress were busy voting that evening, but every once in a while a member would rush to address the group about the importance of health science funding.
The next day those of us from Pennsylvania met first with a staffer from the office of Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey and then with a staffer from the office of Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey. In these meetings, we all had an opportunity to briefly share our stories. Those who had survived cancer or other health conditions had touching, personal stories about the impact that medical research had on their lives. As a researcher, I emphasized the public health applications of my work for addressing mental health and educational disparities for 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 has typically employed approximately 15 staff members, hired directly from the community, at any given time.
After these larger meetings in the offices of our Senators, we broke into smaller groups and went to visit the Representatives of each person within our smaller groups. One of the highlights of my day was the opportunity to meet directly with my own Representative, Charlie Dent, who represents the 15th District of Pennsylvania, where I both live and work. Rally participants had been prepared for the fact that many of our meetings would take place with staffers who focus on the issues we were there to talk about, rather than the Member of Congress. In this case though, Congressman Dent took time from his busy schedule to speak directly with me about my research and about the importance of NIH funding. I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak directly with Congressman Dent about the importance of science for our national health, particularly because of his role on the committee in the House of Representatives that appropriates money for the NIH.
I learned a great deal throughout the process of engaging in this science advocacy effort, and I was happy to be able to serve in this way. It was great to see that there are people in Congress, from both sides of the aisle, who understand the importance of science in addressing societal concerns, even if there are many in the U.S. who do not particularly value the scientific approach.
I was especially happy to have had an opportunity to represent the value of psychological research as a key part of health research at the Rally for Medical Research. Most of the rally participants were focused on physical health rather than on psychological health, so I think it was good that psychological aspects of health were represented. APA was helpful in the support they provided me during the event. I look forward to hearing about how other psychologists will find ways to get involved in advocating for science at the federal level. I encourage anyone who is interested in advocating for science to check out the resources available on science advocacy at http://advocacy.apascience.org/, learn more about science policy news, and sign up for action alerts. There is much work to do to help the public and national decision makers understand the importance of our psychological science.