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I met with the Executive Committee of Division 3 at the APA Convention in August. I asked them to tell me about their greatest concerns and the most pressing issues for experimental psychology. At the top of the list was the challenge of recruiting and retaining members in APA and in Division 3. As with most of the basic science community, the leadership of Division 3 is deeply concerned with keeping experimental psychologists in APA.
At the heart of the matter is a question I get a lot: Why belong? Why should an individual scientist belong to APA and to Division 3? What does an individual get for those membership dollars? Trying to answer these questions is partly a matter of recounting the history of science in APA, and partly rising to the challenge of making APA membership relevant for scientists in the 21st century.
If we go back forty years, it was easy to justify one’s membership in APA. It provided discounted access to important scientific journals, and the APA convention was considered an important venue for presenting talks and socializing with colleagues. Twenty years later, some of these benefits had diminished. Membership in APA still provided discounted access to the journals, but the convention was no longer the place to be seen or heard. During this time, new specialized societies and meetings popped up, and they proved to be far more attractive and productive for many in the science community. Still, the journal discounts continued to make a difference, and so most of us maintained our membership in APA.
Add another 20 years to the calendar, and the cherished journal pricing is no longer a strong inducement. For most scientist members of APA, electronic access to the journals is available through the college or university library. So why belong in 2005, and beyond? The convention is no longer the draw it used to be. Access to the journals is no longer a matter of privilege for APA members. Indeed, why belong?
The answer requires a much deeper understanding of the political landscape of science, the power of individuals organizing as an association, and the depth of resources that APA has built over the past century. This is a hard sell, especially when trying to convince the most junior of our colleagues that membership in professional associations such as APA is important and worth the investment. The payoff, it seems, has shifted from personal and tangible benefits to collective and intangible benefits. Unfortunately for science, an individual’s choice in joining APA has become something of a commons dilemma – it seems as if the collective benefit can be derived whether or not you belong.
The problem with a commons dilemma is that it leads to tragedy – for everyone. Collectively, we (APA) have the resources to publish many of the world’s top scientific journals. Individually, or even together in the form of very small societies, we cannot sustain that kind of publishing activity. Collectively, we maintain a presence at the federal level, where we can monitor and influence funding, regulation, and national policy. The APA Science Policy Office includes a staff of highly skilled advocates and lobbyists, and APA provides substantial support to the other major advocacy organizations (the Federation, COSSA, and others). Even our moderately-sized societies cannot afford the cost of even a single lobbyist.
Why does all of this matter? It matters because our efforts in science will have little enduring value in the absence of a scientific publishing infrastructure. It matters because our efforts in science will not even be possible without federal funding. It matters because the societal contribution of our science will not be known or appreciated without considerable attention being paid to advocacy and public education. None of this can happen in any credible way unless we take advantage of the power in associating.
APA, along with all of its Divisions, is a membership organization. We are working hard to create revenue streams that do not depend on membership dues. Yet, the dues represent only a small part of what it means to organize as a professional association. Setting a course for a national policy agenda, lobbying for appropriate funding priorities, crafting a public image for our science, and maintaining a scientific publishing infrastructure all require agreement, negotiation, and cooperation among ourselves. All it takes to join the conversation is membership. All it takes to help steer the ship is involvement. You can’t do either if you don’t belong.