As members of a scientific community, we all have the opportunity and the duty to give a little of ourselves for the benefit of others. We are teachers, mentors, advisers, editors, reviewers, panelists, chairs, administrators and sometimes even media celebrities or politicians. Why do we do it? On occasion, it is self-aggrandizement. But more often, it is done chiefly in service to the discipline. We owe it to ourselves to nurture and nourish a culture of service to the discipline.
This is not an easy thing to do. The institutional incentives for promotion and tenure, and the rewards that come with focused research activity, work against a culture of service. In many instances, scientists simply do not know how to get involved or how to be included. Graduate training programs tend to devote little attention to this aspect of professional development, making it harder for the next generation of scientists to step up to the plate.
Perhaps these obstacles help to explain why so few of us are willing or able to serve the discipline. As scientists, we number in the tens of thousands. Yet, those of us who engage in service to the discipline (as editors, administrators or officers in professional associations) number in the hundreds. The professional affairs of an entire discipline are managed by a remarkably small number of people. We should not only express our gratitude to those who engage in such service: We need to find a way to increase their numbers.
Many forms of service
Service to the discipline can take many forms. One is through active participation in professional organizations and associations, such as APA. As a membership organization, APA depends on people who are willing to play a role in its own governance. This can include service on editorial boards, committees and governance groups such as the APA's Council of Representatives or Board of Directors. It can also take the form of engaging in advocacy efforts, such as making presentations to members of Congress and their staff.
Stepping beyond APA, the science of psychology depends on people to take leadership roles. Our colleges and universities need deans, provosts and presidents who support and promote psychological science. The federal agencies--which both fund and regulate our science--need to represent psychology at the highest levels. Federal advisory committees, National Institutes of Health institutes and National Science Foundation directorates will function more effectively with psychologists at the table. It can happen, but it depends on psychologists stepping forward and heeding the call to action.
So how might we promote a culture of service? We already reward people for their distinguished scientific contributions to the discipline, and these rewards have recognized value in signaling major career accomplishments. We can do the same for people who demonstrate exceptional service in their contributions to the discipline. Journal editors, department chairs and outstanding mentors deserve to be recognized for the value they add to our shared scientific goals. We should celebrate the accomplishments of those who serve the discipline.
Along these lines, APA's Board of Scientific Affairs (BSA) has just announced the first of what will be a series of annual awards for distinguished service to the discipline. This award recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to psychological science through their commitment to a culture of service. Nominees will have demonstrated their service to the discipline by aiding in association governance; serving on boards, committees and various psychological associations; editing journals; reviewing grant proposals; mentoring students and colleagues; advocating for psychological science's best interests with state and federal lawmakers; and/or promoting the value of psychological science in the public eye.
BSA recognizes that growing a culture of service depends on much more than acknowledging individuals who give of themselves. It also depends on establishing service as an important part of our professional identity. This means that we should model service for our students and incorporate it into our graduate training programs. APA's Science Directorate will be developing tools and resources to help with this. To complement the distinguished service award to individuals, BSA will also add a new award next year to recognize departments that do an especially good job in the mentoring and training of students in service to the discipline.
The science of psychology faces many challenges. Federal funding is threatened by hard economic times, sweeping changes in research regulation are on the horizon and competition for the attention of our students is increasingly intense. We will survive and prosper as a scientific discipline if each one of us contributes just a little of ourselves for the benefit of all.