Commentary: UF program uses social science in search of prevention
Communities from Naples to Gainesville are fortunate to have well-intentioned public servants working hard to contain the opioid crisis. We give them guns, technology, testing labs, drug-sniffing dogs and more.
Enforcing drug laws alone is not the answer. It must be accompanied by reducing the appetite for drugs. But how? That’s not a cop’s expertise. It’s a social scientist’s.
We need social science to repair broken families when dysfunction turns into abuse. Repairs alone aren’t enough. We need a crucial branch of social science – prevention science – to engineer ways to stop families from breaking in the first place.
It doesn’t make sense to invest in even the most well-intentioned efforts without evidence that these interventions work. We need prevention scientists to examine options for strengthening families.
We have high hopes that Brian Visconti, a native South Floridian who has spent years working in social services organizations, will become one of those scientists. He has worked with children who came to his office for therapy and brought with them experiences with PTSD, suicidal thoughts, drug abuse, depression, eating disorders and more.
Visconti poured his heart into helping them. Eventually, he decided that he could do more by using his head. His heart and his head told him the same thing: I don’t want to solve this problem. I want to see this problem not happen.
That’s what brought him to Gainesville in August as one of the first students in a new youth development and family sciences doctoral program at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS). Visconti wants to learn all he can about prevention that works. Visconti’s training will prepare him for a career in figuring out what strategies offer the best chances for heading off some of our most profound social challenges.
There’s a market demand for such experts. There are dozens of help-wanted ads for tenure-track faculty in related fields. The UF/IFAS Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, home to the new doctoral program, was getting 20 inquiries a year from students seeking a doctoral program.
The program in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is the first of its kind at a top-tier research university in the Southeast. It shows promise as a feeder for developing experts qualified for jobs in academia, government and the nonprofit world.
Land-grant universities also have a century-old outreach function called extension. So the doctoral program students can study and work to alleviate real-world problems in our communities.
With doctorates in hand, the graduates could work through extension faculty throughout the Southeast to help local communities by getting prevention science out of the academic journals and into clinics, schools, 4-H clubs and community centers.
These communities want what Visconti wants – to go beyond solving a problem and increasing efforts to make the problem never happen.
We’ll always need law enforcement and therapy to treat the symptoms of scourges. But we can’t arrest or couch-trip our way out of social pathologies. We need highly trained minds – and highly motivated hearts – dedicated to the discovery of that proverbial ounce of prevention.
That means testing interventions in controlled experiments, careful analysis of data and peer review of the conclusions. It means working with families before problems begin.
It also means turning the science of the academy into the science of solutions by carefully applying it to the opioid crisis, to childhood PTSD, to suicide, and to so many painful outcomes that don’t have to be.
The maturing of prevention science and the establishment of a pipeline for people like Visconti to go into society represents more than hope. It’s the use of evidence to deliver solutions in the form of problems that never happen in the first place.
Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com or @JackPayneIFAS.
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