Animal Learning Research at NSF

On May 29th, a contingent of staff from APA and American Psychological Society joined leaders in the field of animal learning research to meet with the Directors of the Biological Sciences and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorates at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

On May 29th, a contingent of staff from APA and American Psychological Society joined leaders in the field of animal learning research to meet with the Directors of the Biological Sciences and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorates at the National Science Foundation (NSF). The meetings, organized by APA Senior Scientist, Susan Brandon, were meant to raise awareness within the NSF of concerns in the scientific community about the decreasing support of research in animal learning and cognition.

The group convened two separate meetings, one with Norman Bradburn, NSF, Assistant Director of the Social Behavioral, & Economic Sciences, and Philip Rubin, Director, Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, and a meeting with Mary Clutter, NSF, Assistant Director of the Directorate for Biological Sciences, Frank Greene, Director, Division of Integrative Biology & Neuroscience, and Joann Roskoski, Executive Officer, Biological Sciences. Present at both meetings were Peter Balsam, Samuel R. Milbank Professor of Psychology, Barnard College and Columbia University; Thomas Carew, Bren Professor and Chair, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine; Karen Hollis, Professor of Psychology, Mount Holyoke College; Richard Thompson, Keck Professor of Psychology & Biological Sciences, University of Southern California; Edward Wasserman, Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology, University of Iowa; Alan Kraut, Executive Director, American Psychological Society; Barbara Wanchisen, Executive Director, The Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences; APA’s Kurt Salzinger, Executive Director for Science; APA’s Geoffrey Mumford, Director of Science Policy; and APA’s Susan Brandon, Senior Scientist.

The visitors presented arguments and evidence that good science in animal learning and cognition is not being supported by the NSF, that this science is vital nonetheless, and that this science remains critically important to allied disciplines, (an example of which is the importance of the systematic analysis of natural and artificial intelligence systems to behavioral neuroscience, and to behavioral ecology). The research in animal learning and cognition fits within the NSF mission to "promote the progress of science."

One outcome of the meeting was to develop suggestions about how this science can be better represented and receive secure funding from the NSF. The meeting resulted in several short-term action items for participating organizations, including:

  1. Work with NSF Program staff to suggest how the Science of Learning Centers program announcements can be written so as to make it clear that basic research in fundamental mechanisms of animal learning and cognition will be supported by these Center programs.

  2. Send names (with CV and contact information) of psychologists who are willing to be actively involved in programs relevant to animal learning and cognition by serving as Division Director, Integrative Neurobiology Division (BIO), Program Director and Panelists for the Animal Behavior Program (IBN/BIO), Program Director and Panelists for the Cognitive Neuroscience Program (BCS/SBE), and Panelists for Science of Learning Center grant proposals.

Longer-term action items included:

  1. Submitting a proposal for a workshop (to either SBE or BIO) for "The Science of Learning and Cognition in the 21st Century" that will serve to develop ways in which research in the fundamental mechanisms of behavior and cognition will remain as a cornerstone of both the behavioral and biological sciences.

  2. Participating in a workshop that is currently under development, being organized by the NSF that is designed to explore ideas about how computational neuroscience, neurobiology and behavioral science can be better supported (under the umbrella of "systems cognition and neuroscience") by the NSF.

  3. Participating in programs supported by a virtual division under development alternately called "Emerging Frontiers" or "Integrative Research Challenges in 21st Century Biology." Whatever it is eventually named, this will be a cross-directorate (SBE, BIO, and HER) initiative to support "radical and risky" research that is "falling through the cracks" via proposals and planning grants.

  4. Encouraging researchers to submit proposals to the Science of Learning Centers initiative, which is soon to be announced.
    Some unique opportunities are presenting themselves from which the animal learning and cognition community will benefit.

These include:

  1. a possible restructuring of the Biological Directorate, along with a desire within the Directorate to recognize how research in animal behavior and cognition serves as "sticky ends" between biology and behavior;

  2. the emphasis within the NSF generally, and within both the SBE and BIO Directorates specifically, to work collaboratively across disciplines;

  3. the recognition on the part of NSF Director Rita Colwell and the larger Washington policy community of the importance of social and behavioral science research.

Assistant Directors Bradburn and Clutter both view an important part of their role at the NSF as being tuned to the excitement and needs of the research community. The reception of the visitors to the NSF was gracious, and the meetings were mutually informative and progressed in the spirit of working together on problems of collective concern. The usefulness of the meeting will depend on what actions are taken next, and on the ability of scientists within and outside of the NSF to continue to work together to address the needs of each. For more information or to offer assistance in this effort please contact Susan Brandon or Geoff Mumford.