Executive Director's Column

Psychological Science and National Defense

Connected with the "war on terror" and the military involvement in Iraq is a wide range of psychological science.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

War and war-like efforts carry with them all kinds of consequences - political, economic, social, and scientific. Indeed, some of the greatest leaps forward in contemporary science - including psychological science - came as a result of World War II. The legacy of that war effort can be found almost everywhere in psychological science today, including work on attitudes, persuasion, group dynamics, visual perception, motor performance, testing, assessment, sleep, stress, decision making, and the list goes on. We may not like war, or necessarily support recent war efforts, but we can't deny the impact they have on psychological science.

Psychological Science Thrives

Connected with the "war on terror" and the military involvement in Iraq is a wide range of psychological science. To cite just a few examples:

Psychologists conduct research in many high-priority areas especially relevant to our nation's military veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use, aging-related disorders, chronic pain, and physical and psychosocial rehabilitation. As Heather Kelly describes elsewhere in this issue of Psychological Science Agenda, APA advocates for the funding of psychological research within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Psychologists working in military defense settings conduct research on human effectiveness in such areas as warfighter training, crew system interface, bioeffects and protection, and deployment and sustainment. Last month's PSA describes APA's visit to Nellis Air Force base in Nevada, where laboratory behavioral researchers are linked with operational Air Force personnel.

Numerous questions are being raised about the involvement of psychologists in interrogation. Former APA President Ron Levant assembled an APA task force to examine the issue of Psychological Ethics and National Security. The so-called PENS report was released in June, 2005. One conclusion of the task force was that more research is needed, including the need "to examine the efficacy and
effectiveness of information-gathering techniques, with an emphasis on the
quality of information obtained."

APA's own Division 19 - The Society for Military Psychology - represents hundreds of scientists who conduct basic and applied research in a wide range of areas relating to human behavior and well-being. Through its meetings and journals, the society helps to support and promote psychological science in service of national defense and the women and men who serve our nation's military.

Psychological Science Can Grow

Opportunity for scientific advancement often arrives in the form of societal challenges and problems. War efforts carry with them not only an urgency to address specific problems, but also the diverting of people and funds to support the research.

As scientists, we should seek to understand our choices and their consequences. Many among us may choose--for good and noble reasons--to keep our attention focused in areas that do not bear on national defense, national security, war, or terrorism. It is essential that some make this choice, because many of society's most pressing problems have little to do with these areas. Yet, it must also be recognized that the funding and research support may not be as lucrative as it once was.

Others may choose - for equally good and noble reasons - to focus precisely on matters having to do with defense, security, war, or terrorism. It is essential that some make this choice as well. It helps that this is where the resources are currently being devoted. Yet, this should not be the primary motivation. Instead, we should recognize in this choice what really motivates most scientists - a quest for fundamental understanding and the opportunity to apply what we learn.

Whether one chooses to work in these areas or not, we should be respectful of the choice. The consequence of either one will be the growth of psychological science, and for that we can all be proud.