Q&A with Dr. Barbara A. Wanchisen, Past FABBS Executive Director
January 27, 2022
As we commemorate 41 years of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS), we have invited former FABBS Executive Directors to reflect on their time in the role. In this Q&A, we spoke with Barbara A. Wanchisen, PhD, who served as Executive Director from 2001 to 2008, with insights on the growth of behavioral and social science at federal agencies over time.
What brought you to the Federation and what was the state of things?
I began my term as Executive Director in October of 2001, just a month after the 9/11 tragedy and I ended in early 2008 to accept a position at the National Academy of Sciences. Prior to that, I had been a full, tenured professor at Baldwin-Wallace University in Ohio, had recently completed a sabbatical on Capitol Hill with my then-Member of Congress, Dennis Kucinich, and was hoping to return to DC after that amazing experience.
At that time, the name of the organization was called the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences (FBPCS) and its staff were employees of the American Psychological Association (APA). In fact, we were housed in the Science Directorate at APA and enjoyed all the benefits of “normal” APA employees, yet we were under the umbrella of a 501 (C) 6 non-profit subsection called FBPCS. Given that particular non-profit designation, FBPCS was free to lobby Congress and I was registered as a lobbyist.
We experienced some financial difficulties with providing necessary resources for FBPCS yet there was a great demand for our efforts by scientific societies seeking representation in Washington, DC. Through a series of discussions with the membership organizations, we launched a 501 (C) 3 offshoot called the Foundation of Associations in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) in order to accept new forms of funding and to focus on the educational vision of the membership. FABBS had its own academic leadership and members and was to operate mostly independently of FBPCS. It was years later that FBPCS, the C 6 arm, was basically abolished, shifting the focus to educating the government and public of the value of the behavioral sciences and limiting lobbying to 20 percent of FABBS activities.
What were those years like?
The staff was small with just three of us full-time. Dr. Jill Egeth, Meghan McGown, and I divided the work. We were a team, we were committed to the mission, and we were motivated! (Both have gone on to develop very successful careers since then.)
Steve Porges hired me and I worked with him a short time. I also worked closely with other FBPCS Presidents including Howard Egeth and Tom Wallsten. Happily, Susan Fiske was always involved one way or another on the Federation board and eventually became President of the newly formed FABBS. Many exciting and creative academicians dedicated time and energy as board members and as society representatives. It was terrific to interact with people I had only known from their work – or not at all – and to discover areas of science I knew little about.
We held briefings and seminars on Capitol Hill and invited member scientists to join us in office visits to help explain the importance of the behavioral sciences. We put serious energy into understanding NSF, NIH and various parts of DOD in order to understand how they leveraged the behavioral sciences, how they funded scientists and what, if any, roadblocks there were for receiving adequate funding. Of course, addressing terrorism was a major priority on the government’s overall agenda, but there was ongoing interest in science involving many aspects of human behavior, from basic to applied.
There were a lot of meetings across the city. Some meetings were called by agencies, routine but informative. Some were meetings called by city-wide coalitions where strategies were discussed for advancing the voice of the social and behavioral sciences; also, some coalitions included all areas of science (notably the Coalition on National Science Funding) with a “united we stand” approach. All of the meetings were opportunities to meet key players and to forge new alliances. I’m sure that I spent far more time out of the office than in seat during those years.
What was the most meaningful experience you had while at the Federation?
It has been quite a while since I left this position and I have forgotten many details of the impacts that we made as the Federation or impacts that we made in collaboration with many others walking the same beat. Of course the old saying holds – “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” – so I don’t want to recreate the past in my favor. But seeing legislation revised in support of the social and behavioral sciences or watching a policy maker “get it” as we described the importance of someone’s work to a pressing societal issue were rewarding moments.
Personally, taking a position like this, and leaving a comfortable academic position to do it, was life changing. I had my doubts and my bad days for sure, but what a growth experience it was. My “rolodex” grew to include new and exciting thinkers, policy makers, and friends. The years literally flew by and my former academic lifestyle became a memory sooner than I would have imagined. Soon I began giving talks on alternate careers in Psychology and how to break into the science policy world.
Overall, being involved in a “cause” with such close ties to my educational background was meaningful and it was personal. And it was therefore ideal for me. This was a job that didn’t quite feel like a job most of the time and that was a lucky thing to find and then build upon in my future career objectives.