Science Directions

The first APA Science Leadership Conference was convened this month in Washington, D.C. The conference focused on the public face of psychological science. It is important to devote resources to the public connection with psychological science to achieve at least four goals:

  • As scientists, we appreciate the value of nurturing a scientifically literate society. Most of us would agree that scientific literacy is a good thing, and that it translates into a happier, healthier and wealthier society.

  • Science is often motivated by, and usually aspires to, practical application. For science to achieve success in application, the public must accept the merit of our science and trust the applications that are derived from it.

  • Science depends on money and public support. Most of our financial support comes from the federal agencies-funded by taxpayers. If taxpayers have some appreciation for the value of our science, they should be eager to support it with their tax dollars.

  • The long-term health of science depends on developing future generations of scientists. This depends, in large part, on sparking the interest of children and young adults. Public outreach and cultivating a positive public image is key.

Many goals, many audiences

Each of these goals is important, and each suggests that our efforts must be tailored to multiple, distinct audiences. As we develop public education campaigns, media briefings, advocacy programs, congressional briefings and course curricula, we must always be mindful of the audience to whom our message is directed.

As scientists, we are good at communicating with our colleagues-especially those who work in the same or closely allied fields. A well-developed system of journals and professional meetings ensures our work is known by others who have an immediate need to know. Yet, in terms of the goals listed above, this particular audience represents a small fraction of those with whom we need to be communicating.

If our goal is to generate money to support our research, then we need to be tuning our message to taxpayers and to members of Congress and their staff. This audience cares less about elegant experimental design, and more about return on investments-how will the science improve citizens' health, safety and productivity? What justifies an investment in psychological science if that takes money away from other uses?

If our goal is to assert the place of psychology in the broader agenda for science, then we need to be focusing our efforts on a scientifically literate audience-one that does not necessarily view psychology on par with physics, biology or chemistry. In this space in September, I discussed how the American Association for the Advancement of Science failed to acknowledge even a single milestone of behavioral science within the past several centuries. This must change.

If our goal is to nurture the pipeline for psychological science, then we need to learn how to engage children, parents and teachers. Our colleagues in the education community understand this goal, and can partner with psychological science to achieve it. The spirit of our discipline can and should be made accessible to grade school children. By the time young adults graduate from high school they should have a deep appreciation for psychological science-perhaps even the desire to pursue advanced study in psychology.

A multifaceted effort

The list of audiences goes on and on. What is clear is that psychological science has not yet engaged them all, or even most of them. It is also clear that a multifaceted effort is required. Different audiences require different communication strategies. What works for a member of Congress will not necessarily work for scientists in other disciplines. What resonates with children may not do much for business leaders.

Reaching diverse audiences also poses a major challenge. The mass media (television, radio, newspapers) work well for some communications, but not for all. In most cases, getting to an audience is costly. And as scientists, we need to demand proof that our efforts have an effect and are moving us toward the goal.

The Science Leadership Conference is a big step in the right direction. Participants represented diverse perspectives, and concentrated their energy on the many public faces of psychological science. Just as individuals invest substantial effort in presenting themselves to others, psychological science must invest substantial resources in presenting itself to a diverse world.

Further Reading

Coverage of the Science Leadership Conference will appear in the February Monitor.