Presidential Column

Psychology Does Have Friends in Washington

Recent actions by the House Science Committee relating to the value of research in the behavioral and social sciences in the context of National Science Foundation funding (see Anne C. Peterson’s guest presidential column, July/August 1995 Observer) illustrate yet again how vulnerable we are to political pressure.

Our pronouncements and recommendations concerning public policy sometimes seem to conflict with the moral/ethical views of some of our critics. Indeed, it is critical to separate completely public policy recommendations and values.

An example that has been widely debated is the legislation of some illegal drugs of abuse. It would seem that at least two conflicting values are at work here: efforts to reduce crimes associated with illegal drugs versus effort to reduce the number addicts.

Hopefully, we can make reasonably accurate predictions about the outcomes of legislation on, for example, marijuana; at least legislators have a right to expect this of us. But should we go beyond this to recommend that policies entail particular value judgments? My own view is that we should not, but these issues can be very complex.

A most hopeful sign in the current debate over the value of the behavioral and social sciences is the very strong support from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

In a statement released on June 28, Bruce Alberts, President of the NAS, “strongly affirms that the social and behavioral sciences are important disciplines in which independent scholarship and basic research have made significant contribution to mankind’s store of knowledge and to the ability to meet critical societal challenges.”

He goes on to list a number of key national problems being addressed by current advances in the social and behavioral sciences in such area as education, health, crime and overpopulation. Many of these problem areas are central to psychology; they all relate directly to human behavior.

The striking fact about health is that more than half of all deaths in the United States are due to harmful behaviors; indeed something like nine out of the 10 leading causes of death are behavioral in nature, ranging from smoking to AIDS.

The NAS does not make distinctions between sciences in terms of importance. All aspects of science are viewed as important. The Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (CBASSE) is an extremely active and effective presence with the National Research Council, the action agency for the National Academy of Science and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.

Following are a few recent examples of studies completed by committees of CBASSE and published as books: Evaluating AIDS Prevention Programs (1991); Behavioral Measures of Neurotoxicity (1990); Learning, Remembering, Believing: Enhancing Human Performance (1994); Demography of Aging (1994); Understanding and Preventing Violence (1993); and Virtual Reality (1995).

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