While walking between my hotel and the Washington Convention Center at last month's APA Annual Convention, a passerby stopped me and asked, "Who are you folks? What is APA anyway? What does it do?"
I had a ready answer for that, somewhere between the too-succinct "professional and scientific association" and the impressively long list of our activities and concerns. It's this--APA is an organization with many sides:
It advances psychological research, methods and application.
It advances the application of psychology to human welfare.
It promotes, protects and expands the practice of psychology.
It supports training expertise at many levels.
Of course, APA is all these things and more, as befits an association whose membership, although sharing psychology as the core training discipline, is broad and diverse. And APA does more than simply promote and foster psychology--it guards and guides the discipline by setting standards, and it extends the discipline into the public arena through education and policy. For example, the APA Style Manual sets the rules for scholarly publications, not only in psychology but also in related fields. Its code of ethics is the model for other associations, both in the United States and abroad. Its public policy stance alone, and in coalitions, is respected and its comments are sought for policy issues at the national and local levels.
Every year, APA sends letters, files amicus briefs, drafts comments, gives testimony and makes visits on a gamut of issues that derive from the professional concerns of us all--academic and nonacademic alike, researcher, practitioner, activist, student and teacher. These activities, especially in coalitions with other organizations, give APA a strong "clout" on those topics it chooses to address.
How does APA determine which topics to make its priorities? Some are perennial--research funding for the behavioral sciences overall, mental health in particular, legislation regulating psychological practice, the need for recognizing the importance of behavioral research and expertise on a variety of topics. Other priorities are determined by discrete events such as proposed regulations or new policy, yet others by broad topic-based initiatives in areas such as health, aging, education and the like, and yet others by identification of a need or trend that psychological expertise should address. Indeed, I like to ask this directly--it's one of the reasons I pick at least two psychologists out of the membership directory tocall each week--to listen, and to be informed.
But the issues on which APA chooses to support are not chosen willy-nilly--there are some guidelines that help decide where time and resources will be spent. Of course, it goes without saying that the issue has to be consistent with APA's overall mission. But beyond that, the issue must be one where psychology's message is based on sound expertise, preferably one on which the Council of Representatives has acted to define APA's stance, and one on which there is some hope of success or other benefit--be it to APA, the profession, the science or the public good.
Do we do enough?
Of course, it is not possible for APA to have something to say on all the issues that meet even these criteria, at least not until we double or triple staff and resources. So sometimes I hear that we don't do enough or go far enough in promoting human welfare--in "giving psychology away" to meet today's societal challenges. But I hear the opposite as well, that we go too far, that we should take a stance on only those issues where our science does or can unequivocally inform our position.
Over the years APA's Boards and Council have discussed just this tension--one I personally find useful for forging a synergy, for honing our science to stretch to its limits and forcing us to carve out what we really need to know. The broad range of perspectives, passions and cautions represented across our membership, and the variety of opportunities to speak out for psychology in the service of human welfare, allow us to continuously educate ourselves and others about those areas where our science and profession can inform policy and action, and those areas where we need to foster research and new knowledge. It is just this lively state that makes me confident that my calls to members will be greeted with gusto and enthusiasm. Aloha.