Executive Director's Column

Is APA an 800-lb Gorilla?

Everything that APA takes as policy, program development and strategic vision is the result of ideas, discussion, and work from individuals, most of them volunteers.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

APA has been characterized as a large, lumbering creature - be it an 800 lb gorilla, a battle cruiser, or, most recently, as an SUV. These characterizations carry a number of assumptions - that APA cannot maneuver with much speed or flexibility; that APA steps on the toes of others who are smaller or more sensitive; that APA carries the egocentrism of the majority. Some of this is just an automatic consequence of the size of the discipline. For example, psychology is the most popular undergraduate major; APA is the largest behavioral/social science professional society; psychologists represent the largest body of behavioral researchers; psychologists dominate the utilization of IRB resources; and recruit large numbers of research participants. Thus, almost by default, this means that its issues, needs and concerns attain a visibility that others may see as disproportionate.

But, as with many stereotypes, there is probably a kernel of truth as well. Let me just provide two examples - we assume that it is only correct that psychology take the forefront in speaking for behavioral researchers in IRB issues - that the differences between biomedical and behavioral research are best illustrated by psychological research examples. It was thus a humbling experience to hear from sociology colleagues that they believe that psychologists are not certainly not the only and probably not the best to guard social science research concerns in IRB settings because psychologists are less likely to be familiar with the complexities of behavioral research done across the social sciences - such as oral history, kinship studies and the like. And APA can be slow and lumbering in producing policy or guidelines. APA's many Boards and Committees and a governance system that requires review and approval across many constituencies can make the time to create association policy seem measured in larger units than in other associations - but it also increases eventual consensus.

But let me turn to the advantages of size. Being big does mean that APA has more resources at its disposal. Just like other associations, big and small, APA has limited resources and must use them wisely. But because its staff is large, APA can shepherd the field in a way that smaller organizations cannot. For example, in addition to advocating for funding and programs to those agencies that most obviously fund psychological research (NIH and NSF), APA can expend effort to secure and to protect funding programs in a broad range of agencies - the current portfolio includes the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, NASA, the Department of Education, and the Department of Justice. APA can also expend effort by searching out new opportunities. The most recent example and terrific success is within the new Department of Homeland Security - two APA-nominated psychologists now serve on prestigious DHS advisory committees, and APA continues to lobby to be sure that psychology will be included in graduate training programs designed to recruit scientists into government service for national security positions. Current and former APA Congressional and Science Policy Fellows are furthering these efforts by providing a voice for scientific psychology by serving as congressional or intelligence agency staff.
Size also means that APA can act quickly to protect the discipline. You may remember that last year, Congress voted on an amendment offered by Rep. Pat Toomey (R-PA) that would have defunded four NIH peer-reviewed research projects on sexual health. You may also remember that the amendment failed to pass by only two votes! APA's broad distribution of action alerts and rapid construction of briefing sheets to give information to supporters of the NIH within Congress are credited in part with averting that vote. To prepare for similar attacks on research, APA partnered with the Consortium on Social Science Associations to take direct action. They formed the Coalition to Protect Research, a group with more than 40 organizations. It will work to educate Congress about the value and importance of this research to our nation's public health.

The good news, related to size, is that APA has a strong corporate identity; the bad news is that APA is identified as a corporation! Because APA has a large budget, because it has many programs, because it has so many members, and because it has so many staff, it may have the appearance of a faceless corporation in which individual action might not appear to matter. Nothing could be further from the truth! Everything that APA takes as policy, program development and strategic vision is the result of ideas, discussion, and work from individuals, most of them volunteers. Individual initiative is the lifeblood of the work of the association. Most of the initiatives, programs, task forces and work group were begun as an idea, often from an individual or a small group, percolated through the system. This also means that APA is a place where the individual has a formative role. I know you have listened to exhortations before about the importance and value of individual input into APA's program and policy development, but just like the stereotypes about APA these have a large measure of truth too. Talk with us, write to us, and most importantly, join with us in committees, listservs and conferences and activities to help APA be a thoughtful, gentle and effective 800 pounder.