• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 01st April, 2010

Will prevention science get cruise control?

Conventional wisdom about the Wright brothers’ aeronautical achievement credits them with the successful development of an early form of dynamic cruise control.It was not the problem of getting a plane into the air that they so famously overcame; their gift to science was keeping it there, by adroitly compensating for the vagaries of the surrounding atmospheric forces.Prevention scientists grappling with the problems of implementation are beginning to see the connection. They know that their “airfoil” works; they know how to get their programs off the ground. It’s keeping them there, whatever the world flings at them.As Wikipedia puts it: “An ideal feedback control system cancels out all errors, effectively mitigating the effects of any forces that might or might not arise during operation and producing a response in the system that perfectly matches the user's wishes.” That’s what preventionists want.Later this year, the annual meeting of the Society for Prevention Research will be attempting to bring aeronautics and systems theory to bear on the perils of translational research. The theme “Cells to Society” is aiming to highlight the “vertical integration” of research among biological, behavioral, social, and population levels of analysis over the lifespan and across generations. And that means delegates are going to be persuaded to concentrate on the bigger picture – exactly what their system scientist colleagues consider themselves born to do.A preconference workshop will bridge the narrowing divide by introducing prevention scientists to the utility of systems science methodologies. Helping them get to the heart of the matter will be Daniel Rivera from Arizona State University whose work typifies the converging thinking. He is half way through a five year project funded by the US Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse to examine the application of control engineering concepts to “adaptive interventions” in drug abuse prevention and treatment.Adaptive interventions amount to individualized treatment regimes which, Rivera explains, represent a form of feedback control in the context of behavioral health.“For a chronic, relapsing disorder such as substance abuse, there is significant interest among government and community agencies in keeping individuals on treatment, giving them the appropriate dosages of intervention components, and using limited resources more effectively,” he says.Rivera will teach a basic primer at the Denver conference on how control engineering principles can be used for optimizing intervention design.A more familiar name contributing to the joint enterprise will be Tom Dishion from the Child and Family Center, University of Oregon.He will be discussing the progress of the Family Check-up, an assessment-driven family intervention strategy that also incorporates a form of assessment-feedback. He will demonstrate how systems design methods can capture short-, intermediate-, and long term effects and be used to generate testable hypotheses.Visit the Society for Prevention Research conference website for more information.

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