Science Leadership Conference

Negative public and political perceptions threaten major areas of psychological science such as AIDS research, animal testing and basic behavioral studies, said panelists at the 2006 Science Leadership Conference. The session aimed to educate scientists on how to improve public understanding of the importance of controversial psychological research, said session chair Steve Breckler, PhD, director of APA's Science Directorate.

Animals and activists

Animal-rights activists are conducting a full-scale assault on animal research by issuing death and bombing threats and destroying laboratories, said the session's first speaker, Nancy Dess, PhD, psychology professor at Occidental College and chair of APA's Committee on Animal Research and Ethics. "A researcher at UCLA [felt so threatened that he] gave back his federal money in order to keep his family safe," said Dess. Universities and research institutions should be prepared to handle protests and be willing to increase security for researchers, she urged. "We need to work to convince the public that animal research is fundamental," she added. And regulatory agencies sometimes over-regulate animal research projects without scientific basis. "We need to make a distinction between undue burden and reasonable oversight," Dess concluded.

A political minefield

Misinterpreted findings from a 2003 research study drew fire from conservatives for speaker Arie Kruglanski, PhD, a social psychology professor at the University of Maryland. "It was an event that changed my life," said Kruglanski. "One day I received an e-mail from someone I didn't know that impugned my intelligence, standards and professionalism and called me a quack," he recounted wryly. At first he dismissed it as an anomaly, but it was a harbinger of things to come. The source of conservatives' ire: A meta-analysis that Kruglanski had co-authored in Psychological Bulletin, which found that holding conservative political views was associated with personality traits such as a need for cognitive closure, a fear of death and an intolerance for ambiguity.

"We emphasized [in the study] that all personality traits have trade-offs," said Kruglanski. However, the research was overshadowed by an accompanying editorial-not written by Kruglanski and his co-authors-that compared Hitler and Mussolini to Ronald Reagan. Kruglanski did not endorse this point of view, but the association stuck. Commentators from around the world decried the supposed political agenda of psychology, he said. The fury didn't die down until he and his co-authors published a clarification.

"I realized there was good news and bad news," Kruglanski said. "The good news was that the public could be interested in psychological research," he explained. "The bad news was that the interest was based on sensationalism." The controversy had highlighted for the public the connection between research and society, but it was also part of a trend of popular doubt and mistrust of research, asserted Kruglanski. Researchers need to educate the public about how social psychology can tackle such real-life problems as terrorism, he said. By understanding the ideology that drives suicide terrorism, psychology can perhaps find ways to prevent it, Kruglanski said.

Battling prejudice

Simon Rosser, PhD, a family medicine and community health professor at the University of Minnesota, has specialized in sexual health research for 20 years, and still runs into prejudice about his work on homosexuality and AIDS. In 2003, a conservative religious group assembled and provided to members of Congress a list of 196 "suspect scientists"-including Rosser. Those on the list were identified as suspect because of the nature of their work-sexuality research, said Rosser. Those on the list found their grants being questioned by Congress and federal agencies alike. The chill it cast over the research community was palpable, noted Rosser.

"Since that incident, there's been a broad sense in the sex research field that we need to mask or sanitize our research so that it cannot be so easily detected," declared Rosser, who has had several studies come under attack for being too "sex positive" or for "promoting a gay lifestyle." As a result, Rosser tries to have at least one Democrat and one Republican supporting his research at every level of funding. "If we want our representatives to support us, we need to educate them about the science," he noted.

David Stonner, PhD, head of the Congressional Affairs Section at the National Science Foundation, ended the panel presentation by talking about the need for psychology to better inform the public in nontechnical, jargon-free language about why the field's research is useful.

-L. Meyers