Executive Director's Column

Small Science is Big

As a scientific discipline, psychology is embedded within a rich nexus of other scientific traditions.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

As a scientific discipline, psychology is embedded within a rich nexus of other scientific traditions. Some even claim psychology as a hub discipline – connecting in deep ways with a diverse array of other sciences.

The history of scientific psychology confirms the benefits of connections with other fields. We borrow from theory and method in biology, mathematics, physics, engineering, anthropology, economics, and sociology. In turn, the theory and methods of psychology are drawn upon to enrich such areas as computer science, cognitive science, neuroscience, economics, and sociology.

As new technologies emerge, psychology picks them up. They get added to the methodological toolkit, and improve our ability to answer the questions of psychology. Sometimes, technology becomes the object of study itself. Explosive growth in mass media and communication technologies has opened entirely new areas of research on interpersonal relationships. Computer technology has created demand for better understanding of human-machine interaction. And the list goes on.

Yet, some new technologies seem to be passing us by. Last month, I discussed the power of grid computing. By harnessing distributed resources, grid computing makes it possible to achieve enormous degrees of computational power, share data, and bring together collaborations that would otherwise be very difficult to arrange. I highlighted several major grid computing projects, and pointed out that the federal funding agencies are making significant investments in this area. Psychology, I suggested, has been slow to adopt this technology.

Another new frontier of technology is receiving even more attention, both from the funding agencies and from industry: nanotechnology. This is technology aimed at manipulating matter at the level of atoms and molecules. It is the creation of devices and materials that fall within 1 to 100 nanometers in size – hence the term, nanotechnology. Potential applications abound, which explains the intense interest from a diversity of industrial and commercial sectors.

This science of the very small is very big with the funding agencies. The National Science Foundation has been investing for many years, to help establish the base foundation on which nanotechnologies can be developed. The National Institutes of Health have been investing heavily, because of the potential applications in diagnosing and treating diseases. Indeed, more than a dozen federal agencies participate in the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

And where’s psychology? We can connect to nanotechnology in two very distinct ways. One is grappling with the societal dimensions and implications of the new technology. People have good reason to be concerned about this technology, yet most of us are not able to really comprehend it. Psychologists who study diffusion of innovation, decision making, and social influence should be immersing themselves in nanotechnology. Although the science is small, the funding for this kind of research is enormous.

The other connection is more promise than reality right now. Indeed, it surprises me that neither the funding agencies nor the scientific community of psychology have identified nanotechnology as a powerful tool for answering fundamental questions about human cognition, perception, emotion, and action.

Think about the powerful technologies on which psychology draws today, such as ychophysiological recording, precise delivery of visual and auditory stimulation, or the measurement of response time. Today’s technologies are big, heavy, cumbersome, stationary, and wired. Nanoengineering can be used to create the same tools, but making them extremely small, light-weight, manageable, mobile, and wireless. The idea is to bring new technology to bear on the problems of psychology.

Perhaps the connections between psychology and nanotechnology are small, but they are worth knowing about and drawing upon for the advancement of our discipline.