A Psychologist in the White House

James A. Griffin, PhD
White House Office of Science & Technology Policy

July/August 2001

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where-” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“-so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat.

~ From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll 

I confess that from the outset I did want to get SOMEWHERE with my career in psychology, but had no idea that I would some day serve as the Assistant Director for the Social and Behavioral Sciences in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Like Alice’s before me, mine has been far from a straightforward journey.

Even before entering college at the University of Cincinnati, I had an interest in psychology, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. I had a vague notion that I wanted to help others, so clinical psychology seemed to make the most sense. Luckily, I had an excellent professor for “research methods,” Dr. Joel Warm, and soon found myself working in a sustained attention lab. I quickly learned that I enjoyed the challenge of creating a well-designed experiment and the satisfaction of running my own statistical analyses. I found that I was able to combine my interests in research and psychopathology, examining the effects of mild depression on the ability to sustain attention, and doing clinical interviews for a psychobiology lab at the medical school. Armed with a firm grounding in the experimental method, I completed my BA in psychology and set off for graduate school in clinical psychology at the University of Rochester.

Although I learned much from and enjoyed my clinical training, I realized I was not destined to be a psychotherapist. I saw first-hand the power of psychotherapy, especially in my play therapy sessions with young children, but felt I could make a greater contribution through my research, rather than one-on-one therapy work. My research interests also had changed from performing controlled lab research on a small-scale to examining trends in large-scale data sets. Dr. Dante Cicchetti, my very understanding mentor, supported these interests, and, through a collaboration with staff from the medical school, I was able to examine for my dissertation age-related trends in first-time use of mental health services by children and adolescents using a community psychiatric case register. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was struggling with the complexities involved in doing policy-relevant research that cuts across disciplinary lines.

After completing my PhD, I was accepted for an NIMH-funded postdoctoral fellowship in psychiatric epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Having “grown up” in psychology departments, it was a culture shock to find myself in the Department of Mental Hygiene, surrounded by psychiatrists, sociologists, biostatisticians, epidemiologists, and others. They had odd research designs, strange statistics (“What’s an odds ratio?”), and a steadfast belief that their research had and would continue to make the world a healthier, happier place. It was great. I worked with Dr. Phil Leaf on child mental health services research issues while I learned about clinical trials and large-scale community interventions.

While in my second year at Hopkins, “Potomac Fever” called for me in the form of a presentation by Dr. Wade Horn, then Commissioner of the Administration on Children Youth and Families (ACYF), on the resurgence of Head Start research and evaluation activities. I learned of openings for strange beasts called “research analysts” within ACYF in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). I had no intention of entering government service as a long-term career path, but when I learned I could shape the design of large research studies and interventions with disadvantaged and at-risk populations, the offer was too tempting to turn down. I was quickly able to apply what I had learned, overseeing the first study of Head Start that employed a nationally representative sample. That descriptive study of the Head Start Health Component helped to lay the groundwork for the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES), a nationally representative study of Head Start children and their families that follows them from Head Start through kindergarten. Performance measures data from the FACES survey continues to contribute to our understanding of the best way to provide services for disadvantaged preschool populations.

After five years at ACYF, a career opportunity arose within the National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education, Office of Educational Research Improvement (OERI) in the Department of Education. It was a natural outgrowth of my work at HHS, and I decided to make the switch. While at OERI, a line was inserted in our appropriation for an “Education Research Initiative.” There wasn’t much detail, other than the promise of $50 million in new money and the requirement that we work with the National Science Foundation (NSF). To make a long story short, NSF received only $22 million that year, and OERI was zeroed out. However, by then staff from OERI and NSF had already begun laying the groundwork for the new initiative, and then Assistant Secretary Kent McGuire made the decision to invest $8 million of OERI funds in the collaboration. In the process of creating the initiative, we consulted with staff from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and soon it was a partner as well. The Interagency Education Research Initiative (IERI), now in its third year, has a combined budget of $60 million and a goal to improve preK-12 student learning and achievement in reading, mathematics, and science by supporting rigorous, interdisciplinary research on large-scale implementations of promising educational practices and technologies in complex and varied learning environments.

All well and good, you say, but where does the White House fit in to all of this? Well, the original push for IERI came from OSTP, based on a 1997 report on strengthening K-12 education by the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Last fall, the Behavioral and Social Science position within the White House, typically filled by someone detailed from NSF or Education, was vacant, and I received the call to serve. Although I was hesitant to accept such a position so close to the end of a presidential administration, I have had the privilege of watching democracy in action, and I am currently working to help implement the President’s education blueprint. Approximately half my time is spent on quick turn-around research policy analysis for briefing materials, and the other half is spent fostering interagency efforts such as IERI and working with behavioral and social science research organizations. I can honestly say that I employ all of my psychology training (including the clinical component) on a daily basis.

So there you have it, follow my path and you too can become a psychologist in the White House! For more information on OSTP activities, visit the website at www.ostp.gov.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

(Originally published in the July/August 2001 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)