Behavioral and Brain Sciences on Capitol Hill

September 25, 2019

September has been an action-packed month on Capitol Hill. While the Senate has been focused on appropriations, House Committees have been holding hearings, hosting briefings, and introducing legislation on a wide range of topics relevant to brain and behavioral scientists.

The House Committee on Science Space and Technology held a hearing on Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work. Witnesses included Dr. Arthur “Skip” Lupia, the Assistant Director of the Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Dr. Lupia spoke about the NSF big idea ‘Future of Work’ highlighting behavioral and social science aspects of the work experience that can lead to empowering workers and increasing productivity.

The House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee hosted two hearings of potential interest to FABBS members. One on NIH medical research investment included NIH Director Francis Collins and directors from several other institutes. Testimony included comments about difficulties for the individuals transitioning from adolescence and adulthood and pain mechanisms affected by emotions. Helene Langevin, Director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, raised concerns about emotions and emotional states affecting pain stimulus and opioid effects. For example, opioids may affect an individual with depression differently than someone who does not suffer from mood disorders.  Another hearing for this committee examined the mental health needs of migrant children in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The hearing followed a troubling report released by the HHS Office of Inspector General that detailed the severe mental health challenges caused by the administration’s family separation policy.

The Biomedical Research Caucus hosted a briefing on “The BRAIN Initiative: Is the Grand Challenge Living Up to Expectations?” Dr. Eve Marder, Brandeis University, reported on the significant advances in tools to measure circuits in phase one. Dr. Walter Koroshetz, NIH, spoke of the continued work for phase two and mentioned the importance of tools to measure behavior in a way that corresponds to biological mechanisms. Dr. Koroshetz is the Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Neuroscience Stroke and is currently co-director of the BRAIN Initiative.

The American Brain Coalition, of which FABBS is a member, the Society for Neuroscience, and American Academy of Neurology, in cooperation with the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus, hosted a briefing on “The Effects of Sleep, and Lack Thereof, on the Brain!” Dr. Tracy Jill Doty, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and Dr. Hans Van Dongen, Washington State University, discussed their research on the effects of sleep deprivation and ways to mitigate it. Even though it is recommended that people get 7-9 hours of sleep a night, the average person in the military sleeps for fewer than 5 hours. People are also very unreliable in self-reporting if they are impaired due to sleep deficit. Doty and Van Dongen’s data using the Psychomotor Vigilance Test helps them determine the safest ways to determine work shift length and best times to administer interventions such as caffeine gum or brain stimulation during certain sleep cycles.

A bipartisan and bicameral bill was introduced to improve and enhance the Office of Technology Assessment. Formed in 1972, the OTA provided Congress with objective science and technology information until it was defunded in 1995. Despite numerous attempts to restore it, the OTA has yet to be re-established.  Rep. Takano (D-CA), one of the authors, explained that “emerging technologies are affecting every aspect of our daily lives,” necessitating an OTA to “give Congress the ability to address the technological challenges of the present, and prepare for what’s in store in the future.”