Science Leadership Conference

Encouraging psychological scientists to get the word out about psychology's value and work with local communities to enhance the public good was the goal of APA's eighth annual Science Leadership Conference. "Act Locally: Promoting Psychological Science in Our Academic Institutions and Local Communities" was the theme of the meeting, which was held Sept. 27–29 in Washington, D.C.

From top: Dr. Jason Q. Purnell and Dr. Anna S. LauPsychological science has a lot going for it, APA then-President Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD, told the almost 120 psychologists, academic administrators, students and representatives from APA governance groups who attended.

"We have new conceptual and methodological approaches that permit us to do research we couldn't even do 10 or 20 years ago," said Johnson. "We have a better basic understanding of and improved approaches to major health and societal problems. And we have a new generation of talented young people who are very well-trained to move our science forward."

Of course, Johnson said, some challenges remain. The biggest? Misperceptions by policymakers, the public and even fellow scientists about what psychological science is.

Sponsored by APA's Science Directorate and Board of Scientific Affairs (BSA), the meeting was designed to dispel such misperceptions and promote psychological science.

"Our goal is to develop ideas for strengthening and advancing psychological science, not only within academic institutions but also within the communities in which we live," said Science Directorate Executive Director Steven J. Breckler, PhD. "Much of APA's work is done at the national — even international — levels, but recently, we've been hearing from more psychologists who are concerned about the role of psychology at the regional and local levels."

Ideas for action

In addition to plenary sessions, the conference featured several break-out sessions. Participants worked in small groups to develop proposals for innovative new policies, programs or activities that could help strengthen research and training in psychological science and promote psychological science within their own institutions and beyond. Conference participants came up with dozens of concrete recommendations, which APA plans to share with academic psychologists in hopes they will consider and then act upon them.

From top: Dr. Steve Breckler, Dr. Lisa M. Brown, and attendees"We don't want to have a conference where everyone goes home and nothing comes of it," said BSA Co-chair Kenneth Sher, PhD. "We're really interested in producing something with legs that will help us move forward." Proposals included:

Raising psychology's profile within academia. One way to achieve this goal is to encourage faculty to become administrators or participate in faculty governance. Psychologists can also invite university and college development office staff into their labs, share publication news with campus media and promote the way psychology departments contribute to undergraduates' scientific literacy by teaching them statistics, the scientific method and other skills they can use in classes taught by other departments. Launching a high profile publication aimed at nonpsychologists — such as a psychology-oriented version of Nature — could also educate the academic community about psychology's role as a science.

Encouraging interdisciplinary education and research. Psychology departments could develop relationships with other disciplines to tackle research questions that could benefit from interdisciplinary participation. Informal get-togethers, such as science cafes organized around a theme, could also help strengthen the broader academic community's understanding of psychology as a science. In addition, universities and colleges could rethink promotion and tenure policies so that they reward interdisciplinary work. APA could promote the development of guidelines to help departments think through such questions as authorship credit, types of publications and other factors involved in tenure and promotion. Offering more interdisciplinary programs at APA's Annual Convention and publishing a special issue of American Psychologist on interdisciplinary research could also help.

Infusing more science into pre-college and undergraduate psychology education. Participants urged psychology departments to revamp introductory undergraduate courses to more actively involve students in science. Other courses could be redesigned to include more lab work, data-rich assignments and quantitative training. Participants also urged educators to expose students to the idea that psychology is a science in high school and middle school.

From top: Dr. Pamela E. Scott-Johnson and Dr. Kurt GeisingerInfluencing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) revision. The MCAT is being revised to include a new section on behavioral and social sciences. APA can alert psychology departments about this development and encourage psychology faculty to add content that MCAT-takers will need to know to their courses.

Marketing psychology to the public. Participants had a wealth of ideas on how psychology faculty can promote the value of psychological science. Departments could encourage faculty members to write editorials, train faculty and graduate students on how to present their research to the media and encourage them to summarize their journal articles in lay terms that the media and general public can more easily understand, for example. Faculty could also reach out to police chiefs, school administrators and other community members who could put their research findings into action. Psychologists could also create a clearinghouse of research topics and resources that departments could use to hold community science fairs, university- or college-wide lecture series or "psychology on tap" meetings at pubs. At a broader level, APA could work with screenwriters to help change the perception of psychology as a science; hold workshops for journalists; and create videos, podcasts and other products for consumers that bring psychology to life. (Listen to APA's "This is Psychology" podcast series.)

Creating connections between researchers and the community. Participants urged psychological scientists to establish partnerships with community members in an effort to use psychological research to help solve local problems. Psychological scientists could also create boards for research projects and invite community members to serve on them. Researchers could serve on the boards of local parenting associations, state HIV/AIDS task forces and domestic violence advocacy organizations. Even coaching a Little League team can help, participants said, explaining how important it is for faculty to cross the "invisible" boundaries that separate institutions of higher education and their surrounding communities and build trust by getting involved in the community on a personal level. Because many psychologists haven't been trained in community-oriented research, those with expertise in that area could produce a Web-based toolkit to guide faculty through the process of identifying community problems and collaborating with community members to address them. Other suggestions included offering training in community-based research and creating an award recognizing partnerships between universities and colleges and their communities.

From top: Dr. Toni Antonucci, attendees and Dr. Edward CastañedaRemoving barriers to community engagement. Some participants proposed that departments revise tenure and promotion guidelines so that they acknowledge community-engaged scholarship and service. Other impediments also need to be addressed, such as criteria for institutional evaluations that do not take community engagement into account and funding streams that impede collaboration with communities. In addition, APA could identify existing public engagement projects and highlight them in convention programming or special journal issues; it could also collect examples of how community engagement benefits departments, universities and colleges and communities.

Achieving these goals will take time, efforts at multiple levels, new partnerships and a willingness to learn from others and relinquish control and top-down approaches, said BSA Co-chair M. Lynne Cooper, PhD. Psychological scientists need to make sure that as they work to broaden the definition of excellent scholarship, they don't inadvertently marginalize traditional forms of scholarship, she said. And they need to keep exploring ways to address psychology's public image problem.

"One effective way to do that is by getting out of our offices and out into the world and demonstrating our skills and expertise," she said

Conference-goers are already starting to put some of the suggestions into practice.

"I've now encouraged my institution to think about hiring someone in the field of community psychology, based on what I learned at this conference," says Andrew Ward, PhD, who chairs the psychology department at Swarthmore College. "I've already started sharing with my department ideas developed at the conference for spreading the word concerning psychology as a science."

For a complete list of proposals produced at the conference, see the November issue of the Science Directorate's Psychological Science Agenda newsletter. 

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.