Engineering Psychology in Research and Development

James R. Callan, PhD
Pacific Science & Engineering Group

After 11 years active military duty, mostly on submarines, I entered graduate school in Biological Psychology at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center in 1970. Through my experience as an electronics and engineering officer on the “boats,” I had gained an appreciation of problems encountered by people working in demanding, complex, technological systems. In the Navy, I was exposed to engineering psychology during introduction of new submarine control and display designs and to I-O psychology from consultants who were assessing military organizations and operational procedures of command and control. My graduate research was on brain-behavior relationships and neuropsychological implications of chronic alcoholism and brain damage.

In 1976, I took a research psychology position with the Navy Laboratories in San Diego, conducting experiments on response time and decision making within military systems on board ships. In 1984, my colleague Richard Kelly, PhD, and I left the government to form Pacific Science & Engineering Group (PSE), and over the past 20 years, PSE has grown to about 35 scientists and engineers. We now compete amongst a handful of human factors engineering companies for grants and contracts from corporations, foundations and government agencies. We have had many medical research projects, including device testing, new product design, development of warnings and labeling, and statistical consulting for other health care researchers. We also provide evidence-based guidelines for programs in military command and control, aircraft and ship control systems, internet system architecture and 3-D displays. Our projects include computer system designs, team training, collaborative work, effects of automation and new, innovative forms of information visualization.

As company president and a principal scientist, I edit and contribute to article submissions, technical reports and consult on research designs and analyses. I review resumes and vitae of experimental psychologists, engineers and computer scientist job applicants. (At PSE, we value the PhD because it gives some assurance of skill in experimentation, enthusiasm for discovery and ability in analysis and expression.) I also devote much time explaining to potential sponsors and clients the potential contribution of applied psychological research to their product or project.

The physiological background in my doctoral research programs has been invaluable in providing greater understanding of issues in human performance. Knowledge of physiology, anatomy and neurology is especially useful when examining human stress, fatigue and perception. Another advantage of my education was the strength of the statistics and computer science programs at the University of Oklahoma. Knowledge of principles and limitations of human performance is valued by system engineers and equipment designers, and the most useful guidelines and recommendations are the result of carefully analyzed data obtained from well designed experiments and observation sessions. In addition, the ability to design computer models and simulations of systems and environments is particularly convincing in presenting the practical value of findings to sponsors and clients.

In 1993, I became a certified professional ergonomist (CPE), an appellation awarded by a national board to those who evidence several years in human factors research, consulting, and system design, and who successfully complete a national examination. For several years, I was licensed as a research psychologist by the State of California, but I reverted to inactive status because the program was dominated by clinical issues, and there were too few of us in applied research to form a critical mass. Each time I sought to renew my license I was required to take continuing education courses in clinical topics unrelated to my specialty. Nevertheless, I encourage practicing research and I-O psychologists to seek state licensure when feasible.

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and APA Division 21 Applied Experimental and Engineering psychology, became my professional homes. I was privileged to serve Division 21 as Secretary-Treasurer, and then, in 1999, as President, following a long line of distinguished research psychologists since the Division was established in 1957. Currently, Division 21 is one of the smallest within APA, but I think it best represents the role of the research psychologist in today’s highly technological society.

As professional research psychologists, my colleagues and I have a vested interest in the advancement of our profession, and we rely on APA for services and support. I represented human factors for a term on the Board of Professional Affairs, where I found APA staff to be knowledgeable and helpful concerning our field’s special blend of research and practice issues. Unfortunately, there are not enough applied researchers in APA to command the attention that our expertise deserves. The Division struggles to maintain representation and visibility, but, judging by the number and quality of applicants for jobs in PSE, I am optimistic for our growth.

APA members featured in this column in the past have explained the satisfaction that accompanies a career of applied research, and I add my voice to theirs. I believe that the future of applied experimental and engineering psychology research and consulting is bright, indeed, and it has been a very exciting and rewarding experience for me.

(Originally published in Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)