Executive Director's Column


Steven Beckler relates his experience as a member of APA

By Steven Breckler, PhD

I have a confession. I have not been faithful to APA. I blame myself. I got distracted by other societies which offered a focus in my own areas of interest, and I failed to understand or appreciate the true value of APA. We drifted apart. Over the years, I've grown, APA has grown, and I have come to realize that scientific psychology is fortunate to have APA by its side. I can't imagine a more attractive partner. I've come home, and I couldn't be happier.

In the early days, my membership in APA was a source of great pride and satisfaction. I joined when I was still an undergraduate at UC San Diego. It was 1979, and the "cognitive revolution" was gaining momentum. I still remember reading my first issues of Psychological Review. In that year's volume alone, Tversky and Sattath published their article on preference trees, Bentler and Speckart put a whole new spin on modeling attitude-behavior relations, John Anderson, Zenon Pylyshyn, and Frederick Hayes-Roth debated differences in theoretical models of mental imagery, and Jay McClelland developed the idea that components of an information-processing system all operate continuously. Wow, was I ever happy to be a part of all this and a member of APA!

I moved on to graduate school at Ohio State, and then to my first academic position at Johns Hopkins. During those years, my faith in APA remained strong and loyal. But it was the 1980s, and everyone knows what those days were like. Members of APA divisions were breaking away and establishing their own, independent societies. Whole new psychological societies were being created. Dissatisfaction among scientists in particular was growing, especially over having to share the same house with practitioners. I saw merit in many of the arguments, and I joined many of the new startups. It was exciting, but it was also costly. I stopped paying my APA dues, only to rejoin when offered a dues amnesty. It is fair to say that the relationship was cooling.

My outlook started to change in 1995. That's when I left Johns Hopkins to be a program director at NSF. After more than a decade of staying sharply focused in one particular part of social psychology, I found myself responsible for funding grants that spanned all of social psychology. I felt like a student again, and enjoyed a renewed sense of awe with my own discipline. I was in my own scientific element, of course, and had a good sense of where social psychology fit in the general scheme of psychology. It was easy to be an advocate for social psychology, and I loved doing it. In the process, I gained a renewed faith for all of scientific psychology.

Still, I was not well-prepared for one thing, and it came as a real shock: psychology was not the only game in town. I always knew that other disciplines existed, and I even had a few friends who worked in them. But for me, psychology was the one and only true behavioral science. I was wrong, and it was costing us money. A lot of money. What I quickly learned at NSF was that other scientific disciplines laid claim to studying behavior, and that these disciplines demanded (and received) resources. Within the social and behavioral sciences, psychology was playing the game with economics, sociology, political science, anthropology, and geography. Beyond the social and behavioral sciences, I saw how biology, computer science, engineering, and mathematics all offered perspective on the very same problems being addressed by psychology.

I learned two important lessons at NSF. One is that for every scientific discipline and sub-discipline, there exists a constituency that is represented by one or more professional societies. Early in my tenure at NSF, I remember a meeting with a delegation from APA. It was led by Bill Howell, who was APA's Executive Director for Science at the time. Bill was there as an ambassador for psychological science, to represent our interests and to offer our services. What I was only beginning to appreciate was that every other discipline did the same thing. Some - like APA - are better able to articulate the centrality and importance of their field; others are less persuasive. It makes a difference. The program I managed (social psychology) was originally created because of pressure brought to bear by APA and others. Throughout my time at NSF, the staff at APA was always there to support and promote the field. I was impressed, and I was re-assured. My affection for APA was warming up.

The second lesson I learned is that the problems that occupy center stage in science right now are multifaceted and complex. Their solutions demand the perspectives and contributions of multiple scientific disciplines. For some of these problems, psychology is the center of focus, and for many others it supplies a critical piece of the puzzle. Yet, contributing to a multidisciplinary enterprise is difficult and challenging. Establishing a local collaboration is the easy part. Mobilizing the full force of the discipline is much harder. Students need to be trained and supported; venues must be created for interdisciplinary exchange of ideas, tools, and resources; results need to be explained in a way that can be understood by scientists who don't "speak the same language"; and new knowledge needs to be disseminated in the public interest. These are daunting tasks, but they are ones that can be fostered and encouraged by professional societies. I saw it often at NSF, and APA was among the very best at doing it. This must continue to be a high priority for the future.

When I was offered the chance to be APA's Executive Director for Science, I jumped on the opportunity. I feel as though I am returning home, rediscovering my roots in psychological science, and joining an organization that can lead our science into the 21st century. I am glad that APA has welcomed me home. I hope that you will join me.