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Newsletter of the Society for Prevention Research
Spring 2013 , Volume 3, Issue 1

Reflections on SPR and Prevention Science: The Phoenix Principle
By Gene Oetting

Gene Oetting

It was dusk in the Colorado foothills and, after the trail ride, the horses were back in the stable. We were sitting, cold beer in hand, on the cleared picnic tables; listening to the cowboy poet tell tales of the old west while warming his hands at the campfire. Behind him, heat lightning was flickering far on the horizon, reflected in the lake.

On this final night of the first meeting of the Society for Prevention Research, about three dozen of us were gathered at Lory State Park, above Ft. Collins, Colorado. It was a dream-like evening, but our finest fantasies for the future could not have matched what we have become today, a vital, thriving society of hundreds of scientists from a wide range of disciplines, all committed to preventing harm of one form or another.

And the campfire is symbolic. Fire is beautiful and warming and stimulating, but dangerous and damaging as well. A large part of that park just burned in a major forest fire. It destroyed much of the beauty, leaving behind the raw black spikes of scorched tree trunks and blackened earth.

But the forest will recover, and eventually the beauty will come back. We can already see the green shoots of new growth struggling through the ash. Like the phoenix, the forest will return, fresh and new, from the ashes of its own destruction.

Why do I think that this is a useful symbol for our Society? Because, as prevention scientists, we always need to be prepared for failure and ready to replant and regrow. Prevention, by its very nature, must be a phoenix. Whatever we are trying to do, no matter how successful we are, there is almost undoubtedly going to be failure down the road. We must be aware that this will occur and be ready to start over again.

Why is failure likely? First, our attempt to alter whatever it is we are trying to change may not succeed. Unless they are trivial, and none of us is devoted to the trivial, the problems that we are trying to solve are deeply ingrained in society and the environment; they are difficult and resistant to change. No matter how brilliant, our endeavors simply may not work. We go down in flames and have to try again.

On the other hand, we might succeed. We may actually change behavior, change social structures, develop a vaccine, or alter the poisonous environment and reduce the damage and the harm being done. What happens then?

With rare exceptions, like smallpox and the guinea worm, where the causative agent can, perhaps, be eliminated, a prevention program has to be maintained to be effective. So even if we develop a superb prevention, essentially eliminating the problem, some idiot is likely to proclaim that it causes autism, or is against God’s will, or is a CIA plot, or for some other inane reason should not be used. And prevention can always be challenged. One reason is that, while you can point to the people you cured, you can’t point to the ones that were kept from harm, so it is harder to put a face on prevention. Even a great program may be eliminated and, while not exactly having to start over, the phoenix principle applies, and we have to rise again and be ready to find ways to reinstate what we have gained.

But this level of success is exceptionally rare. Most of us are trying to deal with ingrained societal problems or damaging behaviors that have multiple causes and multiple and complicated outcomes. Our best efforts, much of the time, are likely to reduce harm by a few percentage points. Those few points are critical; they can mean lives saved, improved well-being, and better health for hundreds or even thousands of people.

Despite that success, our prevention programs are likely to die. Politics change, priorities shift or money gets tight, and prevention is cut. This happened to us in one of our first projects. Forty years ago, we proved that vocational rehabilitation kept mental patients out of the hospital longer and was hugely cost effective. But the treatment professionals were in charge and, with the first budget cuts, rehab was eliminated. Follow the logic: Rehab kept people out of the hospital. That reduced the patient load. Fewer patients justified cutting the budget. So rehab was eliminated. All we could do was dust off the ashes of defeat and start over.

There are ways of staving off defeat. If you institutionalize a program, it is much more likely to continue. Prevention becomes part of the system, accepted as a normal expense or effort. But that creates its own dangers. Programs that become part of the system are likely to deteriorate in effectiveness over time. And, since the environment is always changing, if the program remains the same, it is likely to eventually become irrelevant or inappropriate or less effective.

Further, since institutionalization usually means that people believe it is the “right” thing to do, these programs are rarely evaluated. Getting it tested and, if necessary, changed, may be a harder task than simply starting a new program.

Back to the phoenix principle: In prevention, whatever we create will eventually, fail and we must be ready to rise again from the ashes. Well, at least that keeps things interesting; it means that we will always have a new challenge. But more than that, the whole function of the Society for Prevention Research is inherent in the legend of the phoenix. Failure is just part of the ongoing process. We need to recognize that, be ready for it, and constantly plant the seeds or lay the eggs that produce a new generation of prevention programs.

And, unlike the forest and the phoenix, which simply regenerate themselves as they once were, we are scientists. Each time we try, we produce new knowledge, new theories, new concepts, and we spread and disseminate those ideas. We are not merely rising from the ashes, we are creating a science of prevention, the theories and methods of inquiry that ultimately must lead to progress. In the long run, we will always win. That is the meaning and the purpose of the Society for Prevention Research.

The first meeting of the Society was hosted at Colorado State University by Gene Oetting, Fred Beauvais and Ruth Edwards. Gene is now a Professor Emeritus, meaning that he gets a free parking sticker and letters asking for donations. He still works with the faculty of the Tri-ethnic Center for Prevention Research, struggling to get funding for prevention research aimed at the problems of disadvantaged populations.

Eugene (Gene) Oetting , PhD, is Professor Emeritus at Colorado State University and a founding member of the Society for Prevention Research.

The opinions or views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and recommendations of the Society for Prevention Research and its Board of Directors.

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Editor: Hanno Petras, PhD
Executive Director: Jennifer Lewis, CAE
Membership Director: DeeJay Garringo

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