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Politics & Policies: Speaking Up for Behavioral Medicine

Prabhu Ponkshe, MA, LLB, Chair of the Health Policy Committee

The Obama Administration and the new Congress have now been in office for almost a year. The ideas and sound bites expressed during the election campaign are not enough anymore. The details behind those ideas start to matter now. And that is exactly where we are at this point on the health care issue. The details are beginning to matter.

For members of the Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM), it is time to speak up about the details. The Society can speak for itself, but SBM is merely an organization; its voice will never amount to more than the multitude of individual voices of its members. SBM members are the ones who have the insight and knowledge on many issues in health care. Regardless of whether they speak with one voice, now is the time and the opportunity to express ideas to their elected and appointed officials.

Here are some of the opportunities to speak-up:

The Affordable Health Choices Act, which passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) committee in November 2009 establishes a Prevention and Public Health Fund to ensure that health reform not only addresses health coverage but also makes direct investments in improving America's health. It is not clear at this point whether this fund, which will reorient our health system toward prevention and preparedness, will survive the political process. Those who support the fund are clear about the fact that we need an expanded and sustainable funding stream to support prevention, wellness and public health activities, because high rates of chronic diseases are one of the biggest drivers of health care costs. SBM members clearly understand the link between chronic diseases and behavior. They also understand the need to change those behaviors with evidence-based strategies.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is beginning to recognize the importance of behavioral medicine. NSF's Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate's Advisory Committee is exploring a number of areas with the premise that the SBE sciences have an important role to play in the nation's science and innovation agenda. In examining that agenda, some members of that Committee hold the view that there are certain areas where the SBE sciences are needed, others where they are necessary, and still others where these sciences should be leading the policy response. NSF leadership already recognizes that the "social sciences have been discovered in a big way in this city [Washington, DC]," according to a report published in the Consortium of Social Science Associations. NSF leadership has indicated that many other agencies, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the Department of Defense are "knocking on NSF's door" to involve the SBE directorate in many of their initiatives.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced the launch of the Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (OppNet), a trans-NIH initiative to expand the agency's funding of basic behavioral and social sciences research (b-BSSR). The idea behind b-BSSR is to study mechanisms and processes that influence behavior at the individual, group, community and population level. Research results from the field are expected to lead to new approaches for reducing risky behaviors and improving the adoption of healthy practices. All NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) share the mission of supporting b-BSSR. Twenty-four ICs and five programs within the Office of the Director will integrate existing NIH efforts, target research challenges best met collectively and collaborate on new research initiatives in complementary scientific areas. OppNet will also develop a plan for focused multi-year programs across ICs to advance priority topics within b-BSSR. Funding opportunity announcements are expected by the end of 2009.

There are many such examples of political and policy events that are debated in the popular and scientific media. Being focused on the debates that matter most to you as a behavioral scientist and pursuing those debates, not only serves you professionally, but it serves the profession too.

We are entering an environment of politics and policies that is quite different from what it was until the last election. Ideas based on scientific evidence are being sought like never before. Politics and policies are anxiously waiting for the support of voices from the scientific community. That support has to be active and it has to be expressed in multiple forums. Researchers are unique in that they have access to communications platforms that are not available to the ordinary citizen. They can reach out through the various scientific networks, publications, meetings and societies. The credibility of the evidence base is on the side of the researcher, and that credibility provides access and an audience through the non-scientific media as well. But researchers are also ordinary citizens. That gives them the right to speak up at any time during a political debate.