NSF Announces Search for New Assistant Director for Biological Sciences

On February 18, NSF Director Dr. Arden Bement announced the search for a new Assistant Director (AD) for the Biological Sciences Directorate, a position in which Dr. James Collins has served since October of 2005.

On February 18, NSF Director Dr. Arden Bement announced the search for a new Assistant Director (AD) for the Biological Sciences Directorate, a position in which Dr. James Collins has served since October of 2005. Although the Directorate was once very supportive of psychological science, support for that research, particularly in the areas of learning and cognition, has diminished over the past several years, and neither APA nor grassroots efforts by the scientific community have been able to reverse the situation. 

Trying to raise the profile of that research was a high priority for APA last spring when Dr. Steve Breckler testified on NSF funding before the House subcommittee overseeing NSF appropriations:  

 “…In previous testimony, APA has expressed concern about diminishing support for key behavioral research programs within this Directorate, most notably those focused on learning and cognition.  NSF recognizes the importance of learning and cognition to many branches of science already, and supports Foundation-wide initiatives and individual research projects that seek to understand the neural or genetic mechanisms by which learning occurs, that use learning as an assay for the effects of environmental change on a biological system, that construct and evaluate artificial learning systems, that conceptualize the role of learning in biodiversity and evolution and that apply learning principles to education and workforce challenges. 

However, we hope that NSF’s focus on transformational science will continue to recognize that behavior links everything from molecular biology to ecology because in a sense behavior is the ultimate genetic phenotype.  Animals behave to eat, defend and reproduce, so an understanding of how the molecular processes within and beyond the central nervous system lead to behavior and how behavior serves an adaptive function seems essential to integrating biology across levels.  Within the field of animal behavior and cognition there are clear demonstrations that this integration is occurring.   For example, individual differences in gene expression can now be linked to individual differences in memory, attention, decision making, individual adaptation and fitness.   The opportunity for understanding individual differences is unprecedented.”

More recently, a grassroots effort was launched to appeal directly to the National Science Board (NSB), the governing body which oversees the activities of the NSF.  On January 25, a “white paper,” endorsed by 57 scientists with expertise on animal learning, cognition, and behavior was delivered to Dr. Steven Beering, the NSB Chair, to help garner additional support for that research.  As this issue of SPIN goes to press, the group had not yet received a response.  However, APA hopes that the new AD will be sensitive to the ongoing concerns of the psychological science community.  Further, we encourage the psychological science community to actively engage in this search and to provide recommendations for candidates who recognize the value of basic research in cognition and learning.