Q&A with David Johnson, Former Executive Director

January 21, 2021

As we commemorate 40 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 David Johnson, who served as Executive Director from 1988-2000, with insights on the growth of behavioral and social science at federal agencies over time.

During your tenure, federal agencies took significant steps to advance the behavioral and cognitive sciences.  What can you tell us about the creation of the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF)?

Anyone wanting to know in detail how the SBE Directorate was formed might read a four-part series to mark its creation that I wrote for Psychological Science. As I see it, there were two key events that led to the founding.  Howard Silver who headed the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), Alan Kraut who first headed the Science Directorate at the American Psychological Association (APA), and then headed the American Psychological Society (APS, later the Association for Psychological Science) and I worked closely together on public policies related to the behavioral and social sciences.  We had convinced Congressman Doug Walgren, who had a favorable view of the behavioral and social sciences and who chaired the subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that oversaw NSF, to hold a hearing on funding trends for the behavioral and social sciences at NSF. Howard, Alan and I were asked to submit witnesses to testify.  We agreed to recommend just one witness, Herb Simon, who several years before the 1989 hearing had headed publication of a National Research Council book, Social and Behavioral Science Programs in the National Science Foundation. That book had pointed out that these sciences were underfunded at NSF.  He made that point before the subcommittee. In response to a question from Walgren, Simon said, in part, “I think serious consideration is needed of the possibility of dividing the present Biological, Behavioral and Social Science Directorate into its two natural parts to make certain that there will be at least one assistant director for the behavioral and social sciences who speaks for those fields and who will be a central participant in the higher level budget decisions of the agency.” That planted the seed.  

The second event was the product of frustration. Each directorate at NSF had an advisory committee comprised of scientists representing the sciences supported by the directorate. Psychology used to be in the Biological, Behavioral and Social Sciences Directorate. There was one representative on the advisory committee for the behavioral and social sciences. That was Linda Smith from Indiana University. Time after time the advisory committee would meet, and the discussion of the behavioral and social sciences was always the last item on the agenda. The committee seemed always to run out of time before that agenda item came up. There was always the promise that these sciences would come up next time. So, Linda sat there meeting after meeting waiting for a discussion that didn’t come. One time, the committee took a break, and she was steaming because the committee, again, was going to skip the behavioral and social sciences. She was venting to Howard, Alan and me. We talked about what could be done to get more recognition and settled on Linda suggesting to Mary Clutter, who was the Assistant Director for Biological, Behavioral and Social Sciences, that a study of the needs of the behavioral and social sciences be done and then reported on to the advisory committee. She did just that when the meeting reconvened. To my amazement, Mary agreed, and she got Walter Massey, who was then Director of NSF, to get on board as well.  I was amazed because Mary could have easily dismissed the suggestion and chose not to. 

In Washington, there are moments when an idea reaches its right time, a window of opportunity. Before and after that right moment, it is all but impossible to get the necessary momentum to bring the idea to reality.

That led to hearings.  The two views about the behavioral and social sciences were expressed clearly enough in the course of the hearings. One view was that these sciences were too weak to stand on their own, and the only reason they got funding at all was because they were protected by being housed in the directorate that served biology.  The other view was that the sciences were systematically underfunded because the sciences had no champion in NSF. Before directing the FABBS predecessor, the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, I had been the chief of staff, called an administrative assistant on Capitol Hill, and science advisor to a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. I still had years of the NSF’s budget requests to Congress. Nancy Cantor delivered the main testimony favoring creation of a new directorate. I gave her budget request amounts for the directorate overall and for what went to the behavioral and social sciences from the directorate budgets for the previous six years. The figures made the point clearly that these sciences were systematically underfunded.  Once all the testimony was taken, Mary Clutter commissioned a professional science writer to put the findings together in a report. It was a well done and convincing report.  Walter Massey agreed to create the directorate. The oversight committee in the House gave its blessing, and Cora Marrett became the first Assistant Director for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate in 1991.

What led to the creation of the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research at the National Institutes of Health?  Did FABBS play a role?  If so, how?

The FABBS precursor, the Federation, was deeply involved in creation of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at NIH. As with creation of the SBE Directorate at NSF, getting the NIH office going was a joint undertaking of the Federation, COSSA, and APS. In Washington, there are moments when an idea reaches its right time, a window of opportunity. Before and after that right moment, it is all but impossible to get the necessary momentum to bring the idea to reality. There was a lucky confluence of people on board at this right moment in 1993. Bill Clinton had been elected President.  Harold Varmus had replaced Bernadine Healy as director of NIH. Control of both the House and Senate had passed to democrats.  We had to fight hard for funds and for even a positive view of behavioral and social science research during the Reagan years. We were thinking we could move forward in the next few years rather than just try to hold the line.

Inside NIH, Alan Leshner had come over from NSF to become first deputy director, then acting director, of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) (and, later, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and still later CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)). Alan Kraut, Howard Silver and I had worked with Leshner when he was a program officer at NSF. So, we already had a good working relationship with him when he went to NIH. There are administrators in the Executive Branch of government who one could call minders of the store. That is, they keep their agency or department working but they do not try to envision what could be and then try to implement that vision.  Alan Leshner was never a store minder. He let us know that he thought the time was right to try to get an entity devoted to behavioral and social science research into the NIH. He was willing to lobby internally if we would handle the external work. 

There is a kind of pecking order in NIH. One way to describe it is that there are offices, centers, and institutes.  An entity can move up this pecking order. The National Institute of Nursing Research, for example, started as the Center for Nursing Research in 1985 and became an institute in 1993 as part of the same NIH authorization bill that we used to create OBSSR. Early on, we debated the level we should come in at.  We dreamed of going straight to the institute level. That was unrealistic. The center idea was kicked around.  In the end, we decided our best chance was to start with the office and, in future years, work our way up. Another consideration was that one adverse effect of having a center or an institute might be that the other institutes would start offloading behavioral and social science research saying that it should be handled by the center or the institute rather than be spread out throughout the NIH institutes. We did not want the result of our work to be a decrease in research. So, as our thinking developed, we decided to make the argument that behavioral and social science research rightfully has contributions to make in a great many areas represented by the institutes, and that an office of behavioral and social sciences research would be in a position to promote such research wherever it could make a contribution. That is the basic argument we went with.

[W]e decided to make the argument that behavioral and social science research rightfully has contributions to make in a great many areas represented by the institutes, and that an office of behavioral and social sciences research would be in a position to promote such research wherever it could make a contribution.

Among ourselves, there was a good deal of discussion about which sciences should be “let in” to this office and which should be excluded. The Federation at that time represented some neuroscience societies.  I did not want a science the Federation represented left out. Alan Kraut felt neuroscience would come to predominate the office and diminish the benefits to the other sciences. We worked with staffers of the House Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education to craft the language that would go into the bill to create the office. Such things go into the bill that authorizes the agency, in this case, all of NIH. So, it amounts to a few sentences in a bill that might be a thousand pages in length. The language named the sciences and, if I remember right, also directed the office to further define the sciences that were covered. Today, 27 years down the line, I can’t say who had the right view on the matter. One little vestige of the discussion about the sciences to include and sciences to exclude is the name of the office. It is the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences (not Science) Research. That S was put there deliberately to emphasize that there are many behavioral and social sciences.

As the office was being developed, we both forwarded a list of people who might initially head the office and interviewed the top candidates. In the end, we gave our support to Norman Anderson, and he became the office’s first director. He went on to be APA’s CEO in 2003.

What was the most challenging aspect of your job?

The most challenging part about my job was pretty mundane. There was a pile of work to do and only three people to do it.  I was director. Through most of the time I was there, Claudia Feller was the assistant director and Eileen Cusick was the administrative assistant. We lobbied, worked in coalitions, wrote a monthly newsletter, testified before congressional committees, had a speaker series on Capitol Hill, published a monograph series, started a book series, wrote bill language, attended meetings of advisory committees of NSF, NIH, the Department of Education, the Defense Department, the National Academy of Sciences, AAAS, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and House and Senate committee hearings. I also attended the annual meetings of all our societies. I counted once and realized that I was on the road two whole months out of the year going from one society meeting to another. I had gotten accustomed to long hours during my years as an administrative assistant to a member of Congress, but twenty years altogether of that routine took a toll on my wife and children. 

Can you share a particularly rewarding experience during your tenure at FABBS?

There were many rewarding experiences during my tenure. I’ll recount four that I found especially rewarding. One was the work I did to get the SBE directorate started at NSF.  It still amazes me how much of a fluke it was that Linda Smith’s venting to us her frustration at not being heard at the BBS advisory committee was the event that started the ball rolling. 

A second rewarding experience is that I was one of a small group of people who worked with Senator Ted Kennedy’s legislative assistant for education to create the research arm of the Department of Education. Ronald Reagan had used what was supposed to be the research funding part of the Department of Education as a fund to support a variety of people who espoused approaches to education that he believed in. And he worked at abolishing the Department of Education whose appropriation request he zeroed out each time he sent his budget request to Congress. When Clinton replaced Reagan, he had one of our old friends from AAAS, Shirley Malcolm, set up the administration’s Department of Education. Shirley was amenable to creating a research arm at the department that was modelled on the structure of NSF.  And that is what we (meaning the Federation, the American Educational Research Association, and COSSA put together with Senator Kennedy. NSF is overseen by scientists not employed by the federal government.  They serve on the National Science Board. That is why NSF is known in Washington parlance as an independent agency.  We set up the research arm of the Department of Education as an independent agency governed by an independent board of researchers. That board was called the National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board, and the research arm was known as the Office of Educational Research and Improvement.  Its first chair was Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University’s School of Education.  This research arm has gone through a number of modifications since it was created, but it remains an independent agency protected from excessive manipulation for the sake of political ends by its independent board. 

The third rewarding experience is that I was one of a group of scientists invited by President Clinton and Vice President Gore to put together the administration’s policy on scientific research and economic development. This group met at the National Academy over the period of about a year. What finally emerged was a booklet of maybe 40 pages detailing the policy. I was one of those who got to edit the next to last draft over at the Old Executive Office Building, and I got to put a couple of sentences in Al Gore’s speech when he announced the policy. 

Finally, I was privileged to be asked by Bill Estes when he became the founding editor of Psychological Science to do a monthly column on science policy for the journal. I did that for six years, and it was a lot of fun to try to make developments in science policy accessible and understandable to readers of the journal.