Psychology has the power to address urgent national issues, such as improving health care and curbing climate change, but the discipline needs to make that clearer to policymakers and the public, said clinical psychologist Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) in his address opening APA's 117th Annual Convention in Toronto.
"If you look at almost any grand challenge facing our country today, and asked yourself which discipline ought to be able to have the most influence on that, it's our discipline," said Baird.
Baird named several ways psychologists have led the way to change policy for the public good. Psychology was a leader, for example, in the decade-long fight for equal insurance coverage for mental and substance-use disorders, which culminated in last year's passage of the federal mental health and substance abuse parity act. Psychologists were also central to efforts by the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System to help combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan understand local cultures and incorporate knowledge about tribal traditions into conflict resolution. And on the issue of climate change, Baird said, psychologists' research on how humans react to environment-friendly messages in their power bills has helped consumers reduce their energy consumption by 3 percent, saving $20 billion over five years.
"The science that we do is important, it's research-demonstrated and it's cost-effective," Baird said.
But in spite of these victories, the general public as well as lawmakers still often lack awareness of psychology's worth, Baird said. Last year, for example, the House of Representatives passed the America COMPETES Act to promote research, education and advancement to help the nation stay competitive with other countries. The Senate draft of the bill, however, left out the social sciences. When asked why these disciplines were excluded, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) replied, "We don't need more social studies funding," Baird recalled.
"They didn't understand that social studies and social sciences are different things entirely," he said.
Advocacy by Baird and others eventually secured social science research in the final bill, but it falls on APA members to help educate Americans about psychologists' value to ensure the field's place at the table in the future. One way to do that is by encouraging undergraduates of all majors to take more psychology courses—or even to double-major in the field.
"I'd love to see a cadre of future lawyers, engineers, nurses, physicians and dieticians with a solid, meaningful grounding in psychology," Baird said.
Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.