Science Directions

Last month, I talked about money for science. I pointed out that federal funding agencies have their own priorities and missions to fulfill, and that our collective success in winning grant support depends on the ability to speak to those priorities. Psychologists tend to panic when agency priorities change. I often wonder why this is. Why are we so threatened by changes in federal funding priorities? I think the key to growing as a science lies in understanding this phenomenon.

The value of basic psychological science

One reason for feeling threatened is that some of the shifting priorities--especially at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)--appear to reflect a devaluing of basic psychological and behavioral science. We believe that basic psychological research is relevant to the mission of NIH because it provides the foundation for preventing and treating a wide spectrum of diseases. Although some among us do focus on specific diseases such as cancer, drug abuse or autism, most of us tend to focus on more fundamental underlying mechanisms like memory, motor control or social influence. The argument is that knowledge of underlying mechanisms is critical for ultimately dealing with disease prevention and treatment.

This argument appears to be failing for at least two reasons. One is that the connection between basic science and application depends on a certain leap of faith--that some scientific results will ultimately be of some practical use. We may not know ahead of time which line of investigation will lead to what application, which is precisely why the broadest range of basic science needs to be supported. We are good at convincing ourselves of this fundamental truth, but I fear that the case is not being made with the funding agencies, in Congress, or among the lay public.

When it comes to NIH in particular, the argument is also failing because the institutes of NIH are increasingly focused on their disease-related missions. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is a good case in point. Until recently, the institute supported the idea that very basic psychological research is beneficial for ultimately understanding mental illness, whether or not the research focuses explicitly or directly on a mental illness. NIMH is now demanding that the research it supports be linked more directly with mental illness. This creates a special problem for behavioral science at NIH, because too much of what we do is not tied to a specific disease.

Connecting to the rest of science

I think there is an even deeper explanation for our defensiveness in the face of shifting funding priorities. Relative to other scientific disciplines, psychology is too insular. We are consumed with our theories, effects and experimental paradigms. We do not enjoy a common purpose that allows us to explain--with collective agreement--what problems we are driven to solve. For some reason, psychological science is not doing a good job in connecting with the rest of science.

I can point to a variety of symptoms in diagnosing this ailment. The grant proposals we submit to the National Science Foundation and NIH tend to be single-investigator proposals, not collaborative or team proposals. We sometimes seek specialized expertise from other fields to help with our work, but less often are we sought out for our expertise. We tend to play in our own sandbox--it is a fine sandbox, but it is off to the side, and very small.

What troubles me the most is the way in which psychology connects to the major funding thrusts of the federal agencies, such as nanotechnology, information technology or human genomics. Let's focus on nanotechnology--the science of manipulating atomic matter. The federal outlay for funding of nanotechnology research is mind-boggling. We're talking in the billions of dollars. And where does psychology fit? Mainly, we are asked to deal with the societal consequences. How can we get people to accept and use nano-based products? Will people be scared off, the way they are with genetically modified foods?

If psychology were more fully engaged with science, we would be connecting to nanotechnology in an entirely different way. In addition to asking what psychology can do for nanotechnology, we should be asking what nanotechnology can do for psychology. Let's devote some nanotechnology money in developing new measurement devices for use in cognitive, behavioral and neuroscience research. How about putting some of that money into research on the social uses (not consequences) of nanotechnology?

If psychology wants to compete for federal research dollars, and be energized rather than scared by shifting priorities, we need to better connect with the rest of science.