Executive Director's Column

Gearing Up

The issues during this era tend to focus predominantly on societal challenges and the opportunity is there for social and behavioral science to step forward.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Presidential elections create interesting and important opportunities for scientific disciplines. The campaigns bring into focus issues and concerns on the minds of citizens. They bring out the good – and the bad – in discourse, rhetoric, proposals, and plans. They create a media frenzy, elevating the attention we normally pay to social and economic issues. Yet, it is the chaos and uncertainty that provides opportunity for science.

Inevitably, the campaigns will focus on problems and challenges for which science offers insight, answers, and hope. And because the issues during this era tend to focus predominantly on societal challenges, the opportunity is there for social and behavioral science to step forward.

Consider the challenges we face, as a society, in the area of health care. Decades of investment in biomedical and behavioral health research translate into longer, healthier lives. Yet, as we look ahead we can anticipate several challenges that the next President will need to address.

A huge challenge will center on disparities in health care. Despite the tremendous advances produced by research, the truth is that those benefits are not distributed equally across the diversity of our society. Some racial and ethnic groups derive greater benefit than others. The wealthy among us have access to all the advances, the poor have access to few. Ironically, the older among us are not always the beneficiaries of advances in health care.

We know that such disparities exist. The data are unequivocal. The challenge for the next President will be to do something about it. That’s where the opportunity lies for psychological science. More than any other scientific discipline I know, psychology is uniquely poised to produce insight and develop solutions for disparities in health care.

Research in social psychology, community psychology, health psychology, clinical and counseling psychology, consumer psychology, industrial and organizational psychology – it all bears on understanding and reducing the disparities. And psychology can do more than any other field in translating the basic science into interventions that work.

Another significant challenge will center on the consequences of people living longer. We aspire to longer lives that are also healthy and vital lives. The miracles of modern medicine have helped us to live longer, but they have not necessarily helped us to maintain happiness and vitality in our advancing years. It is psychology – not medicine – that offers insight and interventions to prolonging vitality in aging.

Research in cognitive psychology, human factors, geriatric psychology, along with all the other subfields I mentioned above will contribute insight and offer solutions. As the population of older Americans grows, the next President is well advised to learn from psychology how best to serve the needs of this constituency.

The challenge that concerns me the most is global climate change. Despite the naysayers and cynics, the best and brightest of the scientific community know that climate change is here. It is the result of human activity, and changing human behavior is the only sure way to modify the path we are on. The next President will surely need to take this challenge seriously, and focus significant scientific resources to it.

Although many scientific disciplines bring important insight to the table concerning climate change, the one that is most relevant and most central is psychology. After all, it is behavior that we need to change. And psychology is the science of human behavior.

The challenge for scientific psychology is to assert its relevance and make itself known to the next President. Future policy will be shaped by the White House, and the federal agencies of the executive branch will follow the President’s lead. This includes the funding priorities of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Education. No matter who occupies the White House next year, psychology must be recognized as a welcomed advisor.

How do we accomplish this? Our professional societies must step up. APA is already doing this. President Alan E. Kazdin’s initiatives highlighting psychology’s contributions to the grand challenges of society help to call attention to what we have to offer. APA’s Science Government Relations Office works these issues every day.

Yet, it takes a community to succeed. Every one of us bears some responsibility for getting psychology to the table. Rather than standing on the sidelines, wishing for things that may or may not happen, the time for action is now and the responsibility rests with you. Look for ways to make your discipline known to the next generation of leaders. Find ways of connecting the science of psychology to the challenges of society.

These are things we should be doing all the time. A Presidential election creates a special opportunity to renew our efforts. Let’s gear up now, so that 2009 marks the beginning of a new era in which society turns to psychology for help and solutions.