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Public Affairs Update

  • What advice did sociologists give to NIH on peer review? . . . . The Center for Scientific Review (CSR), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gateway for all grant applications submitted to the $28-billion agency, held the second of its six one-day “open house” workshops on April 25. The purpose of the 200-attendee workshop was to obtain systematic feedback from scientists about whether NIH’s current configuration of Study Sections (i.e., peer review groups) is sufficient to effectively evaluate grant proposals for technical and scientific merit. These CSR open houses provide feedback on both anticipated technological advances and topical foci that could impact the review process’s efficacy over the next few years. The first workshop sought input from the neuroscience community, while the April workshop engaged social and behavioral scientists in helping the NIH assess its peer review infrastructure. CSR Director Antonio Scarpa explained that CSR wants the composition of study sections and the structure of these sections (also called Initial Review Groups) to serve scientific advances. Scarpa said that continuous evaluation of CSR helps ensure that proposal reviews are fair and timely. CSR manages most of NIH’s peer review work with standing study sections, and they are intended not to be “captive” to any single one of NIH’s 27 primary institutes, thus decoupling application review from decisions about which projects will be funded. A number of sociologists participated in the April workshop including two whom ASA invited (Joan Kahn, University of Maryland- College Park, and Jason Schnittker, University of Pennsylvania). ASA public policy staff Lee Herring and Jean Shin actively participated in one of six breakout sessions, “Basic Behavioral Science,” and ASA Executive Officer Sally Hillsman chaired the breakout session on “Risk, Intervention, Prevention: Individual or Small Group Level.” The meeting emphasized scientific questions rather than process issues. Several attendees felt that peer review for specific behavioral and social science areas often works well, but there were suggestions about areas to which CSR should be attentive. And the issue of researchers self-selecting (i.e., choosing to not submit applications to NIH because of a perception that certain areas are not funded) was mentioned. For more detailed information, see cms.csr. nih.gov/AboutCSR/Openhouses.htm.

  • How is American children’s quality of life faring? . . . . Following an upward swing that peaked in the early part of this decade, progress toward improving American children’s quality of life has come to a standstill, according to the Foundation for Child Development’s 2007 Child and Youth Well-Being Index (CWI), an annual comprehensive measure of how children are faring in the United States. This stall can be found across the majority of CWI’s seven domains, with the exception of children’s health, which continues its dramatic decline, and in the area of children’s safety, which continues its encouraging upward trend. Over the last six years, the CWI as a whole has dipped and risen by only fractional amounts, with the exception of an upsurge in 2002 attributed to community and family response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “The troubling stall we’re seeing in the CWI over the past five years tells us that, even in relatively prosperous times . . . , we cannot assume children’s quality of life will automatically improve,” said sociologist Kenneth Land, CWI project coordinator and professor and director of Duke University’s Center for Population Health and Aging. The CWI also indicates that children’s health has sunk to its lowest point in CWI’s 30-year history, primarily due to a rise in child obesity and a smaller decline in child mortality rates. The CWI offers policymakers and other a long-view snapshot of how children are doing over time. For more information, see www.fcd-us.org.

  • Day care linked to better vocabulary and slight behavioral problems . . . . A study based on the National Institutes of Health’s Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), ties day care at child-care centers to modest behavioral problems in children through the sixth grade, but indicates that such problems are within the normal range for healthy children. It also finds that kids who receive high-quality care—defined as care by an engaged, responsive adult or adults in a rich, nurturing setting—have better vocabulary scores through the fifth grade. This comprehensive longitudinal study was initiated to answer questions about the relationships between child care experiences, child care characteristics, and children’s developmental outcomes. For more information, see www.nichd.nih.gov/research/supported/seccyd.cfm.

  • National Academy of Sciences’ report tackles privacy and confidentiality in socio-spatial data methods . . . . A new report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Putting People on the Map: Protecting Confidentiality with Linked Social-Spatial Data, tackles the confidentiality issues arising from the integration of remotely sensed and self-identifying data. When confidential information about research participants and spatial data—information about the locations of their homes or workplaces—are linked, the risk of participants’ identities becoming known to others increases, yet such linked data make important new research possible. The report issued by the Panel on Confidentiality Issues Arising from the Integration of Remotely Sensed and Self-Identifying Data suggests mechanisms that allow this kind of research to expand while protecting confidentiality, including training and educating researchers in the ethical use of data. See books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11865.