Q&A with Paula Skedsvold, Former Executive Director

Paula Skedsvold, PhD

Dr. Paula Skedsvold served as Executive Director of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS), then known as the FABBS Foundation, from July 2008 to October 2013 and again from April 2016 through December 2018. She also served in the intervening time from October 2013 to March 2016 as a part-time consultant and FABBS science advocate, while she spent time at home with her foster (now adopted) child. Dr. Chris Cameron served as the Executive Director during this two and a half-year period.

With a PhD in Experimental Psychology, a law degree, and significant experience on both Capitol Hill and at federal agencies, Dr. Skedsvold brought content knowledge and invaluable experience to FABBS. She was honored by her colleagues as part of the FABBS’ In Honor Of program. In recognition of the 40th Anniversary of FABBS, Dr. Skedsvold reflected on her time leading FABBS and her advice for our scientific disciplines in the future.

As we celebrate FABBS 40th Anniversary, how do you think the organization has changed over the years?

I am thrilled that we’re celebrating FABBS’ 40th Anniversary! I was Executive Director for the 30th Anniversary, and it’s hard to believe it has been ten years since we recognized that milestone.

Two things come to mind in thinking about FABBS’ long history. First, the number of amazing scientists who have been involved with the organization since its inception, each helping to shape it; and second, the amount of change the organization has seen over the years. As you know, FABBS (known in its early days as the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences) was launched to fight back on efforts to cut funding for the behavioral and social sciences. Several scientists representing various professional societies met at a conference, agreed that an umbrella organization was needed to conduct advocacy, and the organization was formed. The primary focus at the time was building support for our sciences overall and responding to the threats to cut federal funding. As part of this work, FABBS hosted forums that allowed scientists, policymakers, and federal agency staff to discuss issues where behavioral science could contribute. This proved to be an excellent way to share the science and inform policy at the time.

Since the launch of FABBS, we have gone from a space in the science office of APA to a separate space in downtown, DC. Our collaborations with APA (our largest member society) remain strong, but FABBS is truly an independent voice for all its member organizations. We also created a Foundation to support our educational outreach, but then consolidated into one organization, FABBS, for efficiency. All along, the advocacy on behalf of our societies continued. I am proud of the part I played in helping to grow the organization. And to this day, I treasure the relationships I built with an amazing group of scientists who served on our boards and committees, advising us and supporting the organization in multiple ways.

“FABBS was launched to fight back on efforts to cut funding for the behavioral and social sciences.”

How did FABBS execute this mission to build support for the behavioral, psychological, and cognitive sciences?

Just before I arrived at FABBS, the organization was split into two arms: advocacy and education. The FABBS Foundation, formed to serve the educational aspect of the mission, launched Science Cafes to bring insights within the behavioral and brain sciences to the attention of the public. In addition, through the volunteer efforts of Board members, other educational activities were launched under the FABBS Foundation umbrella. For example, Psychology and the Real World, a collection of personal essays by top psychological scientists describing their research and what it has contributed to society, was published. Dr. Morton Gernsbacher led the effort along with other incredible board members.

What were your biggest accomplishments and challenges as Executive Director?

Videos, books, and other resources for teaching materials can be found at Teaching – FABBS.

When I arrived, we continued to host the Science Cafes and sponsor the development of new educational materials such as Scientists Making a Difference and Writing Successful Grant Proposals, but there was a renewed interest in connecting research and policy, so we made plans to launch our own research-to-policy journal, Policy Insights in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Again, thanks to the amazing work of our Board members, especially Dr. Susan Fiske who has edited the journal from the beginning and Dr. Robert Sternberg who edited the two books mentioned, we were able to extend our reach in educating students, the public, and policymakers.

In the educational arena, one of the other exciting new adventures for us was the development of a series of videos that showed how fundamental research in cognitive sciences is being used to improve airport screening, stroke recovery, breast cancer screening, and driving, as well as how research makes its way into policy decisions in general. We tagged onto a George Washington University (GWU) class taught by Dr. Stephen Mitroff and followed students as they spoke with specialists at numerous federal agencies and a GWU breast cancer clinic, as well as Congressional staff.

During my time at FABBS, there was also a pressing need to rededicate energy to advocacy. We needed to shore up support for behavioral and brain sciences at federal science agencies, but more importantly, threats to cut federal support to the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation emerged. Specifically, the U.S. House Science Committee Chair proposed cutting federal funding to the Directorate by 50%. In addition, the Chair also targeted individual grant awards to cut, so we needed to spend time educating members of Congress and their staff about why this research was important. We had to explain the importance of fundamental (basic) science to Congressional staff who were less knowledgeable about it and how it can, ultimately, help the nation address its challenges.

“Specifically, the U.S. House Science Committee Chair proposed cutting federal funding to the Directorate by 50%. In addition, the Chair also targeted individual grant awards to cut, so we needed to spend time educating members of Congress and their staff about why this research was important.”

How did FABBS set out to prevent federal cuts to the sciences?

We met with numerous players on Capitol Hill to prevent the cuts:

  • House Science Committee staff (to describe the numerous ways our sciences were contributing to the nation’s priorities, a particular concern of the Committee Chair);
  • Senate Science Committee staff (to ensure their support if a companion bill was introduced);
  • House and Senate Appropriations staff (to reiterate the importance of basic research in the behavioral and social sciences and prevent the threatened cuts from reaching the spending bills); and,
  • Staff in individual Congressional offices (to provide material that could be used to show how this research is benefiting society).

Fortunately, through our own advocacy efforts, our collaborations with member organization government relations’ offices (i.e., APA, AERA), and our leadership work with the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), we were able to hold off the severe cuts. I am proud of the work we did, and of course, our success.

How did FABBS advocacy efforts directly impact our scientists?

FABBS was central in another advocacy effort to support our scientific community, but this time the concern laid with a federal agency’s actions. During my last year and a half at FABBS, we heard from many basic scientists that NIH was requiring them to register their fundamental research in a clinical trials database. The scientists were not concerned with registering the research, but with the database being used, which did not fit basic research in the behavioral sciences. FABBS led the effort on behalf of the scientific community to interact with NIH and Capitol Hill staff and ensure that our basic science members were heard on the issue. Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee listened carefully to our concerns and added report language to the Labor-HHS Appropriations bill requesting that NIH consult with the community.

Our work – and of course, the incredible work of Jeremy Wolfe as FABBS President and concerned scientist – convinced NIH to slow down the process and work with our scientists so that the registration database would work for our scientific community as well. This work showed why FABBS is necessary and what the organization can do for our sciences.

Do you have any comments or advice for behavioral and brain scientists?

I would say to behavioral and brain scientists, “You need FABBS, and I mean really need the organization.” While there are quiet moments in which the organization is not sending Action Alerts, the advocacy staff are always busy building relationships with the federal agency and Capitol Hill staff, showing how our sciences are contributing to the nation. These relationships are critical, especially when the threats to federal funding for the behavioral and brain sciences materialize – and they likely will again.

In addition, I would encourage scientists to get to know state and local candidates for office (often through virtual town halls during COVID, which you can learn about on most of their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds), share with them your expertise, and offer to help on issues in your specialty when they arise. Behavioral and brain sciences have so much to offer society, and we need to identify opportunities to educate the public and policymakers about our research and why it is important. FABBS is also eager to help train scientists to advocate for their sciences and their own research.

If you are in academia and interested in connecting you research to policy, check out our June public scholarship series. In collaboration with the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN), we bring together scientists, policy professionals, and public scholarship experts to discuss how to effectively engage with federal policymakers and translate your research for a broader audience. Join us for sessions every Wednesday at noon (EST) in June.

Executive Director, FABBS 40, Q&A