Feature

In late March, Steven J. Breckler, PhD, left his position as the Science of Learning Centers program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to become the APA Science Directorate's executive director, a slot vacated in December by Kurt Salzinger, PhD, now at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

The Monitor spoke with Breckler about his vision generally for psychological science and specifically for the Science Directorate--a department with more than 20 staff members, a budget of $4 million dollars and the mission of promoting and supporting the science of psychology.

Q. In your opinion what are some challenges facing the field of psychological science right now?

A. I think that psychological science needs to become better connected with all the other fields of science....And vice versa--getting those other fields to connect back to psychology. Not just within the social and behavioral sciences, but also across other fields: technology, engineering, biology, computer science, math and statistics.

You hear that science is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. But there are areas where I think psychology is lagging behind.

Q. Some psychologists have expressed concerns that there is a trend for research institutions--such as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)--to narrow their focus to psychopathology. Do you have any comments on this?

A.The funding agencies change over time, and very often they will try to come back to articulating what their core mission is. And the NIH, in fact, is in the business of trying to cure diseases. There is also a tendency among psychologists to panic. When NIH or NIMH reinforces what it is really in the business of doing, people say, "Gee, that means they aren't going to support me anymore."

Psychologists and scientific psychologists can help themselves by better articulating the role that they play in all areas. It's just a matter of being really clear and forceful in articulating what role all of psychology plays in whatever the mission of NIH or NSF or whatever the funding agency is.

Q. Can you elaborate on what you mean by "being really clear and forceful in articulating" psychology's role?

A.This is actually one of the reasons why APA is attractive to me right now. APA has a terrific ability to translate what people are doing in basic research into material that is publicly accessible. And scientific psychologists should be able to make better use of that part of APA. But even stepping outside of APA, scientific psychology can do more for itself by showing up places like the Washington Post or The New York Times or on television.

One of my favorite examples is that the field of astronomy and astrophysics got a huge boost when Carl Sagan would show up on "The Tonight Show." He did it all the time and became a media celebrity. Psychology should have that too. Psychology is just as interesting as astrophysics--to me it's more interesting.

Q.You mentioned that its important to bridge the gap between psychology and the other sciences, and psychology and the general public. Do you have any thoughts on bridging the gap between psychological science and practice?

A.It's puzzling to me why there is a perceived gap or schism between the practice of psychology and the science of psychology because they both should be able to live in a symbiotic relationship and feed one another. Practice issues, and the goals of practice, should be able to inspire research and basic science in psychology. And in turn, the results of basic research in psychology should be able to inform practice.

Q.How will your professional background relate to your work at APA?

A.I was an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego and went to graduate school in social psychology at Ohio State. I spent a very short year at Northwestern as an NIMH postdoc. Then I went to Johns Hopkins as a new assistant professor.

Most of the research I published while I was at Johns Hopkins [for 11 years] focused on attitude theory and the effects of persuasive communications. But...I started to get really interested in what was happening in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. So in my later years at Hopkins I started collaborating quite a bit with psychologists who were working in those areas--people like David Olton, who studied animal memory.

Ultimately, I didn't get tenure at Johns Hopkins...and there was an opening for a rotating program director at NSF. Social psychology, in particular at NSF, was not deeply involved in foundation-wide funding activities. Other disciplines were getting a lot more money because they had program directors who were very assertive. And that was the model I took.

I've spent the last eight years or so at NSF taking whatever opportunities I had to make sure psychology had a seat at the table of whatever was happening. In the process of doing that, I learned a whole lot about how representation and advocacy work for scientific fields around Washington. I decided that this is where my career is going.

Q.To sum up, what is your vision for the APA science directorate?

A.I have three goals that will guide what I do at least at the outset:

  • I would like to see psychological scientists think of APA as their home. To make people feel like they are welcome here.

  • I want to work on connecting psychology with all the other sciences and disciplines with which we share common goals.

  • The third is connecting the science of psychology to national policy. Getting involved in policy issues is what professional societies do, and APA does it extremely well. My view is that good science should be inspired at its outset by national policy concerns and social policy concerns. Good science should ultimately inform those policy issues.