New Faces in Key Positions

A First Impression

William C. Howell, PhD, Executive Director for Science
William C. Howell, PhD
William C. Howell, PhD
Several of us spent a morning with Bennett Bertenthal, PhD, recently, sharing ideas on the future of the social and behavioral sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). As many of you know, Bennett is taking a leave of absence from his position in the University of Virginia psychology department to head up NSF's Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate. He's replacing Cora Marrett, PhD, the dynamic anthropologist who served as SBE's initial director and has since returned to academe.

The next day, another new appointee, Ellie Ehrenfeld, PhD, a University of California at Irvine molecular virologist who's taking over the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Division of Research Grants (DRG), spent the afternoon with us here at APA in much the same kind of exchange. In this case, the main topic of discussion was peer review at NIH, and in particular, issues and concerns about DRG's future and its impact on the funding of behavioral research.

Because these discussions were both 'off the record,' I shall not go into any of the views expressed. They will emerge as the principals settle into their respective roles, refine their ideas, and articulate their plans. Parenthetically, I should explain that for obvious reasons, early meetings with new officials are most productive--for all concerned--if they are conducted in this informal fashion. It is here, when agendas are being formed, that our input can be most useful and a good working relationship with the newcomer can be established. Anything that inhibits a frank give-and-take is counterproductive.

What I can report, however, are my personal impressions, and I'm happy to say that, in both cases, they are quite positive. I was impressed by the individuals themselves and by the approach they are taking to their new challenges. As a developmental psychologist, distinguished researcher, and active participant in Division 7, Bennett was more of a 'known quantity'--at least to me. Still, it was gratifying to confirm that he is bringing the same enthusiasm, commitment, and inquiring attitude to this new role as he did to those in which we're more used to seeing him. And although it's obvious he is approaching the job, just as Cora did, with a multidisciplinary perspective, it's nice to see a psychological scientist ascending to the position.

For her part, Ehrenfeld appeared genuinely sensitive to the apprehension with which our behavioral science community has been watching developments within the NIH peer review system--changes in which her DRG is, and will continue to be, centrally involved. As with Bertenthal, she is clearly not coming in with a disciplinary bias--which is good news for us. Her recent experience as an academic dean probably helped cultivate this ecumenical view.

What impressed me most of all, however, was how genuinely interested both of these newcomers are in working with the associations to make sure your interests and concerns are properly addressed. Ehrenfeld seemed well versed in the kinds of issues that are worrying behavioral scientists and floated several concrete suggestions for which she wanted our reactions.

So the news is good. But make no mistake: Neither of these folks is walking into a bed of roses--unless in using that metaphor, you remember to include the thorns. Both face a number of very difficult challenges at a critical time. Fortunately, they understand this and are seeking help rather than implying that they have all the answers.

We in the 'association community' have pledged our collective support. What that really means, in most cases, is that we'll be serving as a conduit to bring what's on your mind to their attention and vice versa. So stay tuned and keep us informed.

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