Q&A with Dr. Philip Rubin, Incoming FABBS President

January 13, 2022 

Philip Rubin, PhD

What inspired you to become President of the FABBS board?

My experience with FABBS goes back over twenty years. I first became aware of the organization in 2000, when I took a leave from my position as a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, CT, where I was doing psychological research and computational modeling related to the biological bases of speech and other cognitive activities, to serve as the Director of the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). While I was at the NSF, I quickly learned the important role that FABBS played in advocacy for the behavioral and brain sciences. After leaving the NSF in 2003, I returned to Haskins and Yale, eventually also serving as a member of the FABBS Executive Committee from January 2009 through December 2011. There I was inspired by the passion of the leadership, staff, and member organizations to get involved with issues of science policy.     In February 2012, I returned to D.C., serving as the Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the Executive Office of the President of the United States. During that time period I also led the White House neuroscience initiative, served as a Senior Advisor in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate at the NSF, and eventually took over as Principal Assistant Director for Science at OSTP. While at the White House, the importance of organizations like FABBS became even clearer, particularly based on their trusted reputation, broad membership base, and involvement and expertise with issues of national importance. In 2015, I retired from the White House, NSF, and active research, and returned to Connecticut. The idea of re-joining FABBS was not mine. I received a call from a FABBS Board member asking if I had interest in potentially serving as the President of FABBS. I enthusiastically said yes. Now I am here, hoping that my experience can be of some brief help to an organization that I respect and the communities that it serves. 

As President of the FABBS board, what do you hope to accomplish during your two years in this role? 

As President of the FABBS board, I hope to:  

  • help put in place concrete steps for increasing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in our organization and in the disciplines that it supports; 
  • raise awareness of the importance of the behavioral and brain sciences in confronting the nation’s and the world’s challenges; 
  • work with funding agencies, appropriators, advocates, and others to reduce unnecessary burdens on our communities, while also increasing funding, visibility, and the impact of our sciences;  
  • help develop resources and connections that enable members of our communities to thrive and have their work benefit science and society. 

What, in your opinion, are some of the biggest current challenges facing behavioral and cognitive scientists in 2022? 

  • Career difficulties related to insufficient funding levels and a sometimes frustrating review process at federal funding agencies.  
  • Problems caused by the inappropriate categorization of much behavioral and minimal risk human subjects research.  
  • The understanding, remediation, and prevention of growing increases in loneliness, depression, anxiety, stress, and suicidal ideation, particularly in younger people, in addition to pandemic-related impacts on learning, reading, and development. 
  • Over the last few years, there has been considerable attention to how robots, computational systems, and other devices recognize patterns, make and optimize decisions and choices, and learn. How humans and animals do these things has not received similar attention. This is unfortunate, impedes progress, and needs to be rectified. 
  • Most federal support for brain research has focused on tool development and studies at the molecular or similarly local levels. While these developments are important, it is time to increase attention to the roles of cognition, context, affect, and mind in our understanding of the brain, in humans and animals. 

And what are the biggest opportunities for our scientists this year? 

The current administration is very supportive of science, including the behavioral and brain sciences, but may not always have the expertise and awareness needed to address the goals and interests of our communities. We can help identify issues and approaches of mutual interest and importance. The agenda of the current administration includes topics such as Covid-19, climate, equity, and health care. There are opportunities to make others aware of the roles that our disciplines can and do play in such critical matters, to work on our own and with others to make advances in these areas, and to encourage the administration to expand its list of priorities, if we feel that this is needed. 

Changes in leadership at the federal level at places like the NIH, NSF, and OSTP provide a unique opportunity to build on past and present relationships, and develop new ones as we help these organizations understand our concerns and priorities, take advantage of our collective expertise, and help achieve our mutual goals.  

We can enhance our impact and visibility by working together with other disciplines on issues and structural approaches related to problems that are of both theoretical and practical importance. Examples include: judgment and decision making related to climate change, environmental issues, land and water use, vaccine hesitancy, etc.; open science and publication; data sharing and big data; identifying and countering bias in data, societal interaction, and technology; research reliability, robustness, and reproducibility; convergent science, including biotechnology, artificial intelligence, human-machine interaction, and other areas; and the ethics of emerging technologies from gene editing to neuro-technologies.  

The issues touched on in the answers to the previous question provide the opportunity to show how our disciplines, communities, knowledge, and approaches are essential for confronting the profound challenges that we face.  

One of the biggest opportunities for our fields and for FABBS is to hear from and support new voices and diverse perspectives. Our member organizations play a lead role here, with FABBS serving to highlight, make available, and nurture progress in these areas.  

What are three things that you would like behavioral and brain scientists to know about FABBS? 

  1. FABBS is a leading voice listened to by federal funders and policy makers on issues related to the behavioral and brain sciences, representing our communities and advocating for issues of mutual concern.  
  1. FABBS works effectively across a wide range of disciplines to support our communities by developing and/or supporting resources, gathering information, and identifying opportunities, all of which can help enhance the work of scientists during the various stages of their careers.  

3. Our journal PIBBS (Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences) presents original research and scientific reviews relevant to public policy. PIBBS: 

  • supports the sharing of research useful for creating sound public policy; 
  • gives policymakers the opportunity to provide feedback to the scientific community regarding research that addresses societal challenges; 
  • encourages the scientific community to develop approaches related to the needs of society.