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Nurturing Our Interdisciplinary Science

What activities will support psychologists who study problems at the intersection of traditional subfields in psychology, or at the intersection of psychology and other disciplines?

By Alice M. Young, PhD

At the fall 2008 meeting of the Board of Scientific Affairs (BSA), Executive Director Steve Breckler and Deputy Executive Director Howard Kurtzman of the Science Directorate challenged BSA members to identify ways that the Directorate can support interdisciplinary research in psychology. What activities will support psychologists who study problems at the intersection of traditional subfields in psychology, or at the intersection of psychology and other disciplines?

After multiple brainstorming sessions, BSA members identified more than 30 activities that the Directorate might target. Next, in order to capture BSA members’ initial feelings about how to set priorities, we used an exercise perhaps more common to administrators’ offices than to laboratories or review panels. Each BSA member received $100 in the form of 10 (unfortunately, fake) $10 bills. Each of the 30 ideas was posted on the wall with a cup placed just below. Members then allocated their funds to the ideas that they thought were most likely to pay off.

On purpose, we did not define “best”. For some, it might indicate ideas likely to have a quick, measurable, positive effect (in administration speak - “low hanging fruit”). For some, it might mean a core value or function that must be articulated to those who support science and scientific endeavors. For some, it might represent practices that have proved effective for other disciplines. For most, I suspect, “best” had multiple meanings.

Where did BSA members put their money? Four ideas each captured about 20% of the funds, and four others combined to capture about 15%.

The four top suggestions were that the Science Directorate:

  • Provide a forum for discussion and promulgation of training models that encourage interdisciplinarity. Examples included research rotations; requirements that graduate students complete two or more projects that use different techniques, models, and theoretical approaches; and journal clubs that cross disciplinary boundaries.

  • Articulate the value, sources and implications of interdisciplinary work both inside and outside the discipline. Examples of advocacy directed at psychological scientists included activities to convince psychologists that interdisciplinary work advances our science, discussion of how multidisciplinary work may change our publication practices, and training in best practices for collaboration. Examples of external advocacy included educating university administrators about administrative structures that promote or hinder interdisciplinary work; advocacy to policy makers, public, and other scientists about psychology’s contributions; and advocacy to funding agencies concerning the role of psychology in interdisciplinary research.

  • Provide concrete “how-to's” for collaboration. What are known pitfalls, and how do you avoid them? How do effective high-technology centers operate, and what practices limit psychologists’ access to or utilization of core resources? How do you find fast, effective training in a new area? What models attract students from disciplines outside psychology (such as biomedical engineering, computer science, genetics)?

  • Provide a web-based “one-stop-shopping” resource of information about training opportunities, specialist meetings, career development, and research centers. In short, become the “go-to” source for information about where and how research is occurring in psychology.

Other ideas that captured support included building of a semantic network to allow data mining of links between psychology and other sciences, a forum for data sharing, a forum to identify the landscape of funding models and resources, and strategies to incorporate discussion of public policy implications of research into our training models.

So – what will happen to these good ideas? The leaders and staff of the Science Directorate will use them to fine-tune programs already underway in the ongoing PSY21 – Psychological Science for the 21st Century – initiative that BSA began in 2005. As an example of how ideas for strengthening research become part of APA activities, one activity of PSY21, the BSA Ad Hoc Committee on Research Issues, has led to increased awareness of APA’s role in identifying effective IRB practices that simultaneously protect human research participants and support research work. A proposal to replace the Ad Hoc Committee by re-establishing a continuing Committee on Human Research has been approved by the Board of Directors and will be considered by the Council of Representatives in February 2009.

APA will be most effective by enhancing the environment in which psychological science is conducted. Putting APA's resources to work to support our interdisciplinary science is one way the Science Directorate and BSA seek to grow the science of psychology.