Science Briefs

Distinguished Science Award Reaches 50th Year

2006 marks the golden anniversary of APA bestowing the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, honoring psychologists who have made outstanding contributions to basic research in psychology.

By Suzanne Wandersman

2006 marks the golden anniversary of APA bestowing the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, honoring psychologists who have made outstanding contributions to basic research in psychology. From the first awards given in 1956, when Wolfgang Kohler, Carl R. Rogers, and Kenneth W. Spence were honored to this year when Michael Davis, Marcia K. Johnson, and Martin E.P. Seligman received their awards at the APA Convention, 162 people have received APA's most important science award.

"The APA Distinguished Scientific Awards have been a part of the history of the American Psychological Association for a half a century. The awards that recognize these important accomplishments provide the Association an opportunity to celebrate significant accomplishments in psychology and honor those individuals who have contributed markedly to the accomplishments of our discipline that has its basic roots in science. The recognition of important science and the individuals who have accomplished these milestones is one of the most important things that we do as an Association," said Ronald T. Brown, chair of the Board of Scientific Affairs (BSA).

Later, two additional award categories were established by APA - the Distinguished Scientific Award for the Applications of Psychology (known as the Applied Science Award) in 1973, and the Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology (known as the Early Career Award), in 1974. These awards, in combination with the DSCA, provide an opportunity for APA to honor the full range of psychological scientists -- from the most established to the more junior scientist, and from those conducting the most basic science to those making exceptional applied science contributions.

Each year, the Committee on Scientific Awards (COSA) meets to review nominees and decide who should be selected for the three award categories (DSCA, the Applied Science Award, and the Early Career Award). According to Nora Newcombe, chair of COSA, "The decisions that COSA makes are awe-inspiringly difficult. Looking at the range of famous names and important contributions, the Committee is faced with the agonizingly difficult task of selecting only a few for this level of recognition. We deliberate and debate at length and with passion about our decisions. In the course of the discussion, one satisfying element is realizing what we have learned (so far) about the human condition."

The award recipients span the breadth of psychological science from animal learning and behavior to personality, physiological psychology, and learning and cognition to neuroscience, health psychology, psychopathology, and applied. Roughly 60% of the 162 award recipients have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In addition, there are four individuals who received both the Early Career Award AND the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. Rochel Gelman, Martin E.P. Seligman, John R. Anderson, and Shelley Taylor each received both honors.

Roberta Klatzky, a former chair of COSA and a former chair of BSA said, "The APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Awards have done more than honor a broad range of distinguished achievements in scientific psychology. Through the efforts of the awards committees, they have played an important role in defining the field as it came of age in the years following World War II. Within my own area of specialization, cognitive psychology, names of recipients like Kohler, Tolman, and Skinner ring with history. They are the first footsteps on a path to present emphases on brain mechanisms and computational modeling, represented by more recent honorees. This unfolding of history is retold across the psychological disciplines the awards represent. It is entirely appropriate that we honor the awards themselves, which, through their caregivers, have had such a critical function." 

To nominate a colleague for any of these awards, please visit the Committee on Scientific Award Names for complete details.