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Science in Translation at the Local Level
by Richard L. Wiener, University of Nebraska
SPSSI and Science in Translation. SPSSI has a long history of disseminating social scientific findings related to public policy issues at the national level in the United States. Over the years, the Society has developed effective means of bringing social science research to the forefront in a number of important areas including but not limited to affirmative action; regulating and controlling hate crime; lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members in the military; poverty; immigration; and multi-racial relations. This effort to educate fellow scientists, government decision makers, funders, and members of the public has taken many different forms. Historically, the development of different methodologies to translate social scientific findings has evolved in a number of different directions as a response to different public needs, the availability of new areas of scientific research, and opportunities to “give away” social science findings that are pertinent and timely to national debates about policy and law. Some of the past and current formats have included writing articles in SPSSI journals, disseminating position papers on the SPSSI website, conducting Congressional Briefings, writing Amicus Briefs for Supreme Court Cases, and sponsoring the James Marshall Public Policy Fellow as a representative of SPSSI issues in national policy debates.
The SPSSI policy committee is very active in guiding and directing this activity and it has had numerous successes over the years of structuring the Society’s activity at the national level, making SPSSI an active player in untold policy debates. Another important science in translation function that SPSSI has been less involved with over the years concerns the informational needs of policy makers at the local, regional, and state levels. Nonetheless, public and private policy makers at these lower levels greatly need accurate and objective social science information as they make decisions and enact policy with great potential to influence the daily lives of children, students, adults, workers and whole families.
Science in Translation at the Local Level. What types of decisions occur at the local, state, and regional levels that could benefit from the use of social science findings? The number and types of actions are almost limitless in scope and specificity. Consider some of the following types of policy action examples that occur frequently at these lower levels of organization:
a. City councils pass ordinances concerning controlling substance use and gang violence.
b. Local private and public agencies endorse anti-discrimination policies and procedures.
c. Police departments increase surveillance of individuals with mental health problems who engage in nuisance crimes.
d. School boards make administrative decisions about race and gender.
e. Zoning commissions decide administrative issues to regulate the use of residential and commercial land.
f. State licensing boards promulgate rules to regulate professional conduct.
g. State legislatures pass or fail to pass statutes to compensate exonerated individuals who were wrongly incarcerated.
h. State courts hear cases deciding whether to allow parents to deny medical procedures to their children for religious reasons.
These are examples of the types of decisions that policy makers, lawyers, corporate executives, and public officials routinely make that have important implications for the everyday lives of citizens across the rural and urbanized areas of the United States. The University of Nebraska Law and Psychology Program has recently started a new program designed to assist policy makers struggling with difficult decisions at the local, state, and regional level. The faculty and students at UNL started a dissemination program for science in translation at the local level. We have begun scanning regional private and public agencies for hot topics of public concern for which there is established social science information that decision makers could use to assist in reaching life-altering judgments.
Science in Translation in Nebraska. A recent case involves the Nebraska “Beatrice Six” who were convicted, in part based upon confessions, and served prison time for the murder and rape of a 68-year-old Beatrice, Nebraska woman. Subsequent DNA evidence exonerated the defendants and implicated a now deceased Oklahoma man as the likely killer. The case brought into the limelight a pending bill in the Nebraska legislature that would have provided at least $50,000 a year for each year of wrongful conviction to those who had served prison time. The fate of the bill was entangled with the events that lead up to the imprisonment of the Beatrice Six, several of whom had falsely confessed to the 1968 crime. At issue, was the status of false confessions and the psychological research on the topic. Many in Nebraska, including the family of the murder and rape victim, were troubled by the fact that the new legislation would benefit defendants who had admitted to the murder of Helen Wilson. In conjunction with the Nebraska Innocence Project, Richard Wiener, director of the law and psychology program testified in front of a Nebraska legislative committee on the psychological literature that explains how and why people sometimes falsely confess to crimes that they have not committed. The Nebraska newspapers carefully followed the hearings and reported on the committee’s findings. Graduate and law students at UNL were the primary researchers for the evidence that Wiener gave to the legislature. (The testimony is available on the website at www.unl.edu/crisp/index.asp. Additional work on the admissibility of defendants’ dreams in a criminal trial appeared in local newspapers (www.journalstar.com/articles/2009/06/02/special_reports/presumed_guilty/
doc4a036d2794d56449298219.txt) after reporters interviewed Wiener on this topic. Again, graduate students and law students assisted in researching the status of dream testimony at trial.
While we are unable to ascertain how influential this science in translation information was in Nebraska (a modified version of the bill did pass the unicameral), we do know that this was an excellent opportunity to present findings from psychological research to a state legislature. More importantly, these findings are now in the record in Nebraska and likely will make their way into the deliberations in other states and may eventually rise through the legislative and judicial system to the federal level where it could have a nationwide impact on policy related to those who are wrongfully convicted.
Associated with the University of Nebraska, Department of Psychology is a private not-for-profit research consulting organization, Scientific Resources for the Law (SRL), which now is home for the website of our newly founded science in translation committee, Current Issues in Social Policy. We are working on other regional issues, one of which concerns gender identity crisis in Omaha in which a young boy wishes to change his gender, and the role of the schools and local government in his and his family’s life. The other concerns discrimination policies in local organizations in South Dakota. Following the Iowa Supreme Court upholding the right of gays and lesbians to marry in Iowa, same sex couples are working in private organizations and publically to enact legislation to protect gay workers against discrimination because of their sexual orientation in South Dakota.
The purpose of Current Issues in Social Policy (CRISP) is to identify local, state, and regional policy and legal issues for which the social sciences and especially psychology can offer important insights and to disseminate research findings at the local level that are of value to the local policy makers. We believe that most policy starts locally and eventually works its way up through private and public systems to reach the national debate. The goal of CRISP is to enter the debate at the early stages so that once the policy issue arrives on the national scene, a track record will be in place making it easier for SPSSI and other like minded organizations to offer science in translation evidence at the national and international levels. Please visit our website and offer any suggestions that will advance what we believe is an exciting and new involvement for psychological scientists interested in providing information to policy makers and legal decision makers.
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