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Invest Now in Human Capital Research

The 1996 election is now history, but it will be some time before we can see how the results will actually influence funding for psychological research. Recall that the 1994 congressional results were widely received with misgivings and apprehension about the potential fate of funding for scientific research, and, indeed, there were many close calls. However, as described elsewhere in this issue of the Observer, the outcomes were far better than had been expected (see page 1). What will the future hold? The needs keep growing—“can we expect better support from the federal government? I won’t attempt to forecast the verdict to be rendered two years hence, but I can describe three steps being taken to increase investment in basic and applied research and development related to “human capital.” Psychology’s Human Capital Initiative was launched in January 1991 when over 100 participants in the Houston, Texas, Psychological Science Summit approved the publication of a draft document, The Human Capital Initiative (HCI), on behalf of 65 research-oriented organizations. In the past five years, in addition to The Human Capital Initiative, four HCI-associated special reports have been published, and a fifth is expected shortly.’ Each addresses substantive questions and offers priority directions for research. In addition, in 1994 the National Science Foundation (NSF) embraced and broadened the Human Capital Initiative, and significant additional funding was secured. Vigorous action now can improve the verdict to be rendered in two years. Here are the three steps:

First, Marilynn Brewer, Ohio State University, and Duncan Luce, University of California-Irvine, have taken the lead in drafting a proposal, already submitted to NSF, for a workshop on Psychological Science Underlying Human Capital. The workshop meeting will be held to explicate the basic psychological research issues latent in the specific research initiatives published so far and also in NSF’s related HCI effort. Through this workshop, our HCI and NSF’s should move closer together. The workshop will help also to inject more basic research into the HCI effort.

Second, education is a major topic area in the original initiative, but it has not yet been addressed. Brnce Ovennier, University of Minnesota, Bob Bjork, University of California-Los Angeles, and Don Foss, University of Florida, are now taking the lead in organizing a workshop that will focus on what psychological science knows, and needs to know, about learning and literacy. This effort in particular has the scope to propel psychological science as the core of a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary breakthrough, first in funding, then in findings.

Third, Jim Blascovich, University of California-Santa Barbara, is working on plans for another behavioral science summit meeting, to be held in the winter or spring of 1998. Strengthening psychology’s research base is the tentative m:ljor theme, with “human capital” as a main focus, and regulation of research (e.g., as through IREs) as another potential focus.

The summit might also consider targeting strategies (i.e., producing and distributing documents targeted for specific federal research agencies versus producing the typical HCI documents distributed through the Observer), and possible additional large-scale initiatives. So what? Second only to representative government, I believe that scientific research is the most important societal institution to evolve in our history. And sometimes, especially when looking at election results, I am not so sure that representative government deserves first place. Whether or not your current view of the election outcome gives you an optimistic outlook for the next two years, we as psychological scientists have to present the case for investment in behavioral research clearly and persuasively.

The past two years show that diligence and persistence work. It would now be utter folly to lessen our advocacy effort in the hope that Congress and the administration will be “kinder and gentler,” to borrow a phrase from another era. Competition for scarce resources will intensify in the next two years, and we need to unite in support of bringing basic and applied psychological science to bear on the tangible problems our country now faces.

Copies of The Challenging Nature of Work, Vitality for Life, Doing the Right Thing, and Reducing Mental Disorders are available from the APS Office, and publication of Violence in America is expected shortly.

Milton D. Hakel is Regents’ Scholar and Professor at Bowling Green State University .

Observer Vol.9, No.6 November, 1996

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