Executive Director's Column

Who Speaks for Our Science?

To grow and to prosper in the 21st century, science depends on those who can represent us - on those who are able to speak on behalf of the discipline.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

When it comes to psychological science, most of us spend most of our time doing the science. We devote ourselves to acquiring, refining, and expanding a repertoire of scientific skills, we immerse ourselves in a scientific literature, we design and conduct studies to answer important questions, we share our results with other scientists, and we train new generations who will carry our science forward.

The health of our discipline clearly depends on individuals who choose to pursue the life of a scientist, often at great personal sacrifice. Yet, to grow and to prosper in the 21st century, science also depends on those who can represent us - on those who are able to speak on behalf of the discipline. Who will press Congress and the funding agencies to make sure that money is available to support our research? Who will defend our science when it becomes the target of partisan political attacks? Who will promote our science and see to it that policy and society is informed by and benefits from our collective progress?

The important work of speaking for our science often falls to individuals. Some of us like to do this, and some of us are especially good at it. Those who nurture positive relationships with the media, who are gifted in writing for the popular press, who are effective in political arenas - they speak for our science. Very often, psychological science is only one of many potential scientific stakeholders who might have a seat at the table. It is vitally important that our science be represented at that table by able members of our own scientific community.

Consider the direction in which the federal funding agencies are heading - the big money at NSF and NIH is going to multidisciplinary projects with large teams of investigators who are assembled to tackle big problems. Much to their credit, NSF and NIH depend on a well-developed peer-review process to help make the big funding decisions. Those peer reviewers speak on behalf of their disciplines - they assess the merit of the science that falls within their areas of expertise. If psychological science is - or should be - one of the disciplines participating in a multidisciplinary project, then we need peer reviewers who will speak on behalf of our discipline.

Or consider that national policy is typically shaped by advisory boards and panels. For example, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) produces influential reports and studies that bring science to bear on important societal questions. Psychological science is not likely to be represented unless psychological scientists participate and speak on our behalf. NSF and NIH are guided at the highest levels by Boards and Councils that include representation of the major relevant disciplines. When psychologists are appointed to these groups, someone is able to speak on our behalf. At the risk of leaving someone out, I can point to three very recent appointments that should make psychology very proud:

  • Alan Leshner was just appointed to the National Science Board

  • Roxane Cohen Silver sits on the Homeland Security Advisory Committee

  • Baruch Fischhoff sits on the Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Committee

All three of these scientists identify with psychology as a disciplinary home, all three are Fellows of APA, and all three give our discipline an important voice. We also organize ourselves - in very deliberative and formal ways - to create structures that speak on our behalf. Scientific societies and professional organizations are created chiefly for this purpose. These groups even organize themselves into larger entities, because in larger numbers there is even greater strength and visibility.

Large associations, such as APA or the American Psychological Society (APS), speak for our science through advocacy, education, and communication efforts. These groups establish scientific journals, they maintain an active and vigorous presence on Capitol Hill and at the federal agencies, and they sponsor meetings, workshops, and conferences. Smaller scientific associations also speak for psychology through their journals and convening functions. Very often, however, these smaller groups do not have the resources they need to engage in advocacy or legislative activity - to speak for psychology in important federal venues. However, they do have the ability to pool their resources in pursuit of an advocacy agenda. Two good examples relevant to psychology include:

  • The Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences - a group of 18 scientific societies who are able to speak as one larger voice on behalf of psychology and cognitive science.

  • The Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), an advocacy organization supported by more than 100 professional associations, scientific societies, universities and research institutions. COSSA brings psychology together with such disciplines as sociology, political science, economics, geography, communications, statistics, and education research to pursue a common advocacy agenda.

APA is an active member of both of these groups. We certainly have our own resources to support a full advocacy, education, and communication program on behalf of psychology. We support these groups, and others, because we believe firmly that multiple voices are better than one, that different perspectives need the opportunity to speak on our behalf, that in greater numbers there is greater power. When we ask who speaks for psychology, the answer is that we all do. Some among us speak as individuals, and others as members of the chorus. Either way, it gives psychology a powerful voice indeed.