Volume 54, Number 2
Public Policy Matters
A Big Win for HF/E
by William C. Howell, Government Relations Committee Chair
An event occurred late in 2010 that is of considerable moment for the field of HF/E, but it's safe to say that very few members of our community noticed it. Even those who did probably failed to grasp its significance because it appeared to be little more than a bureaucratic move by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies-a renaming of its Committee on Human-Systems Integration (CoHSI) to the Board on HSI (BoHSI). Having been involved in NRC activities (including this committee and the division that oversees it) for several decades, I can provide some context to help explain why this is more than a simple name change. I will attempt to do so in the remainder of this article.
As you may know, if you've been following the "Public Policy Matters" reports in the HFES Bulletin over the past two years, since 1980, HF/E has enjoyed unique representation within the National Academies, the nation's foremost advisory body on science, medicine, and engineering (see "News from the NRC Committee on Human-Systems Integration [CoHSI]" by William S. Marras, HFES Bulletin, April 2009). Originally labeled the NRC Committee on Human Factors (CoHF), it has afforded HF/E a direct route for influencing public policy via authoritative input on pending legislation, regulations, agency agendas, and other policy matters in which human systems are involved. For a field whose existence barely exceeds a half century and that is still struggling for proper recognition, an NRC committee dedicated to infusing HF/E knowledge into policy decisions not only validates its legitimacy but affords the opportunity to render valuable service on a sustained basis.
Unfortunately, however, despite having produced an impressive list of reports over the years, some of which clearly had an impact, the CoHF never seemed to realize its full potential. The reasons, by and large, lay outside the committee itself-in particular, its history of financial support and the failure of the HF/E community to appreciate its potential (or even recognize its existence). Let's examine each of these factors in turn.
CoHF Support History
Although federal agencies fund many of the NRC's activities (occasionally in response to congressional mandates), they do so primarily to get authoritative input on issues that they are unable, for any of a number of reasons, to resolve themselves. In some cases the funding is in the form of relatively nonspecific "core support"-basically enabling units (such as CoHF) in areas of sustained interest (such as HF/E) to continue providing input in those areas. In others, it is restricted to addressing specific issues in the more familiar "project support" mode.
Over the years, budgetary constraints have forced most federal agencies to go exclusively the "project" route, and that was the case for CoHF's sponsors. Its initial funding was in the form of core support from Army, Navy, and Air Force research agencies, the main purpose being to provide sustained advice on the most promising HF/E areas in which to invest their research dollars. With tightening budgets and accountability requirements, however, core support gave way to project support, which greatly altered the committee's mission and rendered both its funding and agenda considerably less predictable. Moreover, the trend in its overall support was downward.
Efforts to solicit broader support from within and outside the Department of Defense were largely unsuccessful because CoHF was seen by potential sponsors who were aware of it as having a narrowly defined military focus, and by the majority who were unaware of it as irrelevant for their purposes. When the Navy (Office of Naval Research) withdrew its support, CoHF was almost entirely dependent on Army and Air Force projects that were becoming increasingly difficult for these longstanding sponsors to justify. With that core support gone, the burdens of staffing and other continuing committee expenses were shifted elsewhere within the NRC.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the CoHF's financial condition was becoming a matter of considerable concern for the NRC for a few years into the new century. Moreover, its staff director, Anne Mavor, who had ably guided and nurtured its activities from the start, was about to retire. These developments prompted the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBASSE), to which CoHF reported, to propose a reorganization in which the committee would be abolished and its functions reassigned to another DBASSE unit, the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences (BBCSS).
Such a move, of course, would not only have eliminated the field's unique representation in the Academy, it also would have relegated HF/E issues to the bottom of the BBCSS agenda. Basically, it would have killed HF/E in the Academy.
I was asked by a senior DBASSE staffer to address the issue at a BBCSS meeting, and my argument was well received. Subsequently, as a member of DBASSE, I was joined by CoHF Chair William Marras in presenting the case to that body. Although this, too, was well received, the serious sponsorship and staffing problems remained unresolved. So, if not reorganization, then what?
At this point, Barbara Wanchisen joined the NRC as BBCSS director, but she assumed interim responsibility for the CoHF as well. Long story short, having headed up the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, now the Federation of Associations in Brain and Behavioral Sciences-see Gerald Krueger's article "FABBS 2010 Annual Meeting Report"-(of which HFES is a member) for some years, Barb was familiar with the field and its potential. She took it upon herself to explore ways to resuscitate CoHF and enable it to continue as an independent DBASSE unit.
After meeting with a number of potential sponsors, she was persuaded that the "Human Factors" label in the committee's name was a drawback, in that it reinforced the impression of the committee as somewhat outdated and focused exclusively on military applications. Bill Marras concurred in this assessment, and after some deliberation by the committee, they succeeded in having "Human Factors" replaced by the more current and inclusive "Human-Systems Integration" label.
From then on, the sponsorship picture began to improve. Thanks to the combined effort of Barb Wanchisen, Bill Marras, and the entire committee, support was obtained for projects on home health care, pilot fatigue, and other nonmilitary applications. The newly named CoHSI was off and running.
Neglect by the HF/E Community
Throughout this history, and still today, very few professionals and organizations with a stake in HF/E have been aware of the committee, let alone the unique opportunity it affords for influencing public policy and advancing both the field and their interests. Consequently, although the aforementioned effort to broaden the support base has achieved some success, it has not been easy, and the unrealized potential for sponsorship remains vast.
For that reason, involving HFES in its promotion has been a priority of the Society's Government Relations Committee (GRC), along with that of Barb and the committee. In fact, HFES has itself become a sponsor, contributing $5,000 in much-needed core support on an annual basis. Additionally, as noted earlier, the HFES media have been enlisted in the continuing effort to educate and inform the membership about noteworthy committee activities and developments-which brings us back to the important event that prompted this article.
From Committee to Board
In the Academy's organizational structure, committees vary considerably in the scope and duration of their charge, whereas boards are the standing bodies responsible for creating and overseeing them. Most committees are assembled to carry out a specific project or study and disband once it is completed, although some-particularly in areas where the demand and potential sponsorship is high-continue on a sustained basis as long as the demand persists.
CoHF was of the latter sort, but as we've seen, it was facing termination because of dwindling support. It was, in fact, the only free-standing committee within DBASSE.
However, rebranded as CoHSI, it not only avoided extinction but succeeded to the point that DBASSE and the NRC deemed its future viability assured and elevated it to the status of a standing board (BoHSI). And that, dear HFES members, represents far more than a mere name change. It is, in fact, a huge win, not only for Barb and the committee, who made it happen, but for the NRC and-most important-for HSI and the entire field of HF/E.
Let's hope that as awareness of and appreciation for what BoHSI has to offer continues to grow-through these reports in the HFES media and elsewhere-support for its continued success from within the HF/E community will grow apace, enabling realization of ever more of its vast potential.
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