Science Leadership Conference participants talk about substance abuse research on Capitol Hill

Psychologists receive training, then advocate for science to their Congressional representatives.

By Pat Kobor

The American Psychological Association’s seventh annual Science Leadership Conference (SciLC) brought 83 participants to Washington DC from 34 states over the weekend of October 22-24, 2011. The title of the conference was “Call to Advocacy:  Psychological Science and Substance Abuse.”

Why This Conference, This Year?

“We wanted a lens through which we could talk about the importance of basic and applied psychological research in Congressional offices,” explained Geoff Mumford, the director of the APA Science Directorate’s Government Relations Office.  “Every member of Congress confronts the costs and consequences of substance abuse in his or her district. It seemed a theme that would allow a good discussion.” Figures presented at the SciLC demonstrated the significant health and economic impacts of substance abuse throughout the nation.

Seventh annual Science Leadership Conference (SciLC)

In every second year (the non-federal election years) the SciLC features advocacy training and visits to Capitol Hill.  Participants were chosen not only for their expertise but also for the Congressional district in which they lived or worked.  The aim was to bring in scientists whose Representative or Senator served on a Committee that played a role in funding or overseeing a federal agency that addressed substance abuse issues.  This year, participants visited 143 Congressional offices.

Most of the conference participants worked on substance abuse research or services in their universities or in Veterans Administration facilities. The conference included presentations by researchers and government officials on the effects of substance abuse on special populations (including active duty military, veterans, and people in the criminal justice system), other societal costs of substance abuse, prevention research, clinical trials, and policy development.  These presentations  were intended to help participants be conversant on areas of the problem beyond their personal expertise.

Talking Points

The scientist-advocates were briefed on four messages they would deliver.  They asked  House members to sign a letter (PDF, 837KB) in support of the House Appropriations Committee’s request for the National Institutes of Health (an increase of $1 billion or 3.3% for Fiscal Year 2012), to maintain funding for two critical Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense programs for substance abuse research, and to oppose amendments that seek to strike funding for ongoing peer-reviewed research projects. 

After his talk on national drug control policy, Keith Humphreys (L) talks with Steve Lee, Steven Sussman and Steven Sherman.

An initial training session for those new to interacting with Congressional offices was led by Heather Kelly and Karen Studwell of the Science Directorate’s Government Relations Office.  Later, Christopher Kush of Soapbox Consulting led an exercise that helped participants work out how their talking points would be presented.  Many of the Hill visits included multiple participants, and there was a great deal of discussion about who would present which request.  Some participants were going to research-friendly offices, and others were visiting new members of Congress who were focused on cutting government spending.   Participants worked together to build effective, coherent presentations, which they made during their visits on Monday, October 24.

Representative Hansen Clarke (D-MI) and Science Leadership Conference participant Leslie Lundahl. 

Feedback from Congressional Office Visits

After their visits, APA government relations staff interviewed many participants to get a feel for how their talking points were received and how they rated the experience of visiting the offices of their members of Congress.  Here is a sampling:

Jennie Stevenson (Pennsylvania):

“My experience was fantastic. … I felt listened to. I also felt that this staffer valued my efforts. He was complimentary about the advocacy efforts of the APA and encouraged me to stay involved. I don’t think the meeting (with Senator Robert Casey’s office) could have gone much better.”

Sharon Wilsnack (North Dakota):

“I had a very warm reception in each of the Congressional offices I visited.  I was especially heartened by the response of the Congressional staff in Senator Conrad and Senator Hoeven’s offices.  In Senator Hoeven’s office I was told I was the first real scientist who had visited that office. Senator Hoeven is a freshman, and his office was eager for information about my research on women and alcohol abuse, and appreciated the state-level information about substance abuse we provided.“

Carl Hart (New York):

“I invited Sen. Charles Schumer’s staff person to speak to one of my classes at Columbia, and she’s scheduled to come in December. “

Laurie Chassin (Arizona):

“My meetings with the offices of Arizona’s two Senators were positive: both offices are very engaged on substance abuse issues. I told them about our concerns when peer-reviewed research is attacked.  One staffer asked to be informed if an Arizona grant is ever targeted.”

Jalie Tucker and Joseph Schumacher (Alabama):

“We are hoping to follow up our conversations by meeting with the Congressional staff in Alabama, and would love to have them visit our university programs for a tour.  The offices seemed quite supportive of our Department of Defense and Veterans Administration requests, and they certainly understand the importance of NIH funding to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  It was clear that our university president is known to the Alabama congressional offices and that she has been similarly advocating on behalf of UAB.  But the four offices we visited know the least about threats to peer review.  They support protecting peer review but need to know more about what that means.”

Judy Grisel and Ashli Sheidow (South Carolina):

“In our visit to Rep. Gowdy’s office, the Congressman came out to speak with us (we hadn’t expected that) and we were able to give him a quick version of our requests.  He is knowledgeable about substance abuse issues because he worked in a drug court.  In discussions in other offices we were surprised to find that the staff didn’t understand that many researchers’ salaries come solely from grants.” 

Pat Kobor is Senior Science Policy Analyst in the APA Science Government Relations Office. She advocates for psychological research at the National Institutes of Health.