From the Executive Director

Working from the inside

Psychologists can influence psychological science through service at federal agencies and national research institutions.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Many of us have contact with federal agencies, and other institutions that work at the national level.  This includes granting agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.  It also includes regulatory agencies, such as the Office for Human Research Protections, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Education.  Many other institutions also serve the scientific community, such as the National Academies of Science.

These are large, complex organizations that most of us only know from the outside. Grant proposals are submitted to NSF or NIH, but few really know how those proposals are managed by agency staff and reviewed.  The funding agencies issue calls for proposals and otherwise signal directions for future funding, but rarely do we have insight into how those directions get set.  We are even further removed from any opportunity to influence or set those directions.

Because so many of us are so far removed from these organizations, we tend to view them as faceless bureaucracies.  Yet, the truth is they are managed and staffed by people like you and me.  The review officers, program managers, and institute directors all tend to come from the field – they worked as researchers, scientists, and educators.  They are tapped for their expertise, and work from the inside.

Having served as a program officer at NSF for many years, I can attest to the impact one can have working within such organizations.  It is exciting, important, and productive work.  I am a strong proponent of facilitating science from within such organizations.

APA supports and recognizes those among us who devote their professional energies (and sometimes entire careers) to work on the inside.  Our Meritorious Service Commendations (awarded annually) recognize individuals who have made outstanding contributions to psychological science through their service as employees of the federal government or other organizations. Thirty-two such commendations have been made since APA started the program in 2002.

Psychologists who are looking for ways to make a difference should consider spending some of their time by working from the inside.  The funding agencies frequently announce open positions.  Many are offered as visiting or “rotator” positions, which are ideally suited for a one- or two-year sabbatical. Others represent permanent staff positions.

A great example was announced in November. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is recruiting (PDF, 236 KB) behavioral scientists with expertise in cognition, emotion, and/or perceptual and sensory sciences.  NCI has been at the forefront of bringing behavioral science to bear on the detection, treatment, and prevention of cancer.  This is a fantastic opportunity for psychologists to work from the inside in supporting and developing this work.

Another good example is at the National Academy of Sciences, where a search is currently underway for a new Executive Director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBASSE).  This is a very high level position, providing leadership for the Academy’s boards, committees, studies, and workshops relating to the social and behavioral sciences.

APA’s own Executive Branch Science Fellowship Program offers yet another way to work from the inside.  This is an annual competition (which has already closed for 2011/2012), designed to provide psychologists with a learning experience in research administration and policy and to contribute to more effective use of psychological knowledge within federal research funding agencies.  It is a great way to learn first-hand how science policy is developed within the Executive Branch.

Psychologists influence the nation in many ways.  One important avenue is by working from the inside.  The opportunities described here, along with many others, are ones that psychologists should be pursuing.