Science Leadership Conference

The public needs to hear about the value of psychology, and psychologists need to be willing to speak out about why scientific research is important, said presenters at a Science Leadership Conference on how psychologists can engage the general public, civic groups and high school students.

That engagement is needed at a time when science finds itself embattled, said Alan Leshner, PhD, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of Science.

"Many of us believe we have to go beyond simply trying to educate the public, and move into...public engagement with science, which is a much more genuine dialogue," said Leshner, who led off the session discussing the public's views of science.

The good news, Leshner said, is that opinion surveys consistently find that between 70 and 90 percent of people believe that the benefits of scientific research outweigh or are equal to the risks. Despite that support, a report by the National Science Board "Science and Engineering Indicators 2004" found that significant percentages of the public hold strong to psuedoscientific beliefs, with 60 percent believing in extrasensory perception and 41 percent believing that astrology is somewhat scientific, he said.

And there's a growing tension between science and the public, said Leshner, because many people now believe that some lines of scientific research-such as embryonic stem-cell research and cloning-are encroaching upon core human values.

To counter that tension, scientists from every discipline need to stand together in explaining the benefits of science and engaging the public, he says.

"We are at a time in the history of science that is at a minimum distressing, and probably the worst in our collective scientific lifetimes," he said, citing recent congressional attempts to defund studies of sexual behavior. "We need to act like a team."

Indeed, the efforts of chemists, biologists and physicists in speaking out against legislation to defund specific peer-reviewed studies helped psychologists narrowly defeat the proposals, Leshner said.

Leshner's comments about engaging the public were followed by a presentation from Richard Nakamura, PhD, deputy director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who said that one way psychologists can reach out is by talking to the public about the negative impact of mental disorders and how ongoing research holds promise for more effective treatment.

The fact that 90 percent of people who commit suicide suffer from a mental disorder, and that suicide is a greater cause of death in the United States than murder, illustrates the value of research and the need to make progress, Nakamura said.

Indeed, future research will shed further light on how to treat some mental disorders by changing someone's environment or behavior, as opposed to treatment with antidepressant drugs, he said.

"Our brains seem designed to accept behavioral and environmental intervention," he explained. "It may be possible that we can develop much more specific interventions around behavioral therapy."

Robert Sellers, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, gave attendees tips on how they can present such information about psychological research to public groups, such as parent-teacher groups or service organizations. He advised psychologists to consider the differences between the academic audiences they're used to addressing and such a group.

Although academic talks stress theory and provide caveats, a public talk should explain results in terms of what the research means to the audience, he said.

"They generally want to know 'What can I take from this?'" he said.

Before addressing a group, Sellers advised psychologists to research the audience, including their expectations, their level of education and the makeup of the group.

"Be clear, but not simplistic," he said. "No jargon, no acronyms. It's important to explain theories in ways that are relevant, and explain your methodology in ways that are accessible."

Conference attendees also heard from Charlie Blair-Broeker, a high school psychology teacher at Cedar Falls High School in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

A teacher for the past 30 years, Blair-Broeker said that close to 800,000 U.S. high school students take a psychology course in a typical year, and that about 100,000 enroll in college-level Advanced Placement psychology courses.

By introducing students to a rigorous, science-based course, high school instructors help teach young people the value of scientific skepticism and the skills needed for critical thinking, all while growing the next generation of psychologists, he said.

"If we want to attract bright young people to the discipline, if we want psychology to be diverse, high school classrooms are a good place to begin."

-C. Munsey