Science Leadership Conference

APA Science Leadership Conference takes on psychology’s STEM challenge

Speakers offer strategies for improving understanding of psychological science by the public, policymakers, and other scientists

By Howard S. Kurtzman, PhD

Over 100 psychologists gathered in Washington, DC, on November 11-13, 2010, for the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Science Leadership Conference.  Working within the conference theme “Strengthening Our Science: Enhancing the Status of Psychology as a STEM Discipline,” participants developed proposals for activities that APA and other organizations and individuals can undertake to increase recognition of psychology as a core STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) discipline.  Helping to guide their work were the recent APA task force report that examined the inconsistent inclusion of psychology within STEM policies and programs in the United States and a series of invited presentations by speakers who have worked to promote psychology as a STEM discipline in research, education, and policy arenas.

The conference was organized by the APA Board of Scientific Affairs and Science Directorate.  Participants included representatives from almost every APA division and from the major APA governance groups concerned with science and education issues, along with representatives of other behavioral and social science organizations and other psychologists who have specific expertise in STEM research and education. 

Increasing psychology’s prominence as a core STEM discipline is a major objective in APA’s current strategic plan.  The ideas that emerged from the conference will inform the association’s efforts toward that goal over the next several years. 

This article provides an overview of the observations and suggestions offered by the conference speakers during plenary sessions.  Proposals developed by the full set of conference participants, working in break-out groups, are being organized into a separate report that will appear in a future issue of PSA.

How Psychology is Faring

The conference’s lead-off speaker was Rhea Farberman, Executive Director for Public and Member Communications at APA.  She presented results from an APA-sponsored public opinion survey on attitudes towards psychology as a science.  The survey’s findings indicate that most members of the general public understand that science is a process based on hypothesis and evidence, and not just a set of conclusions, and most view science as leading to improvements in people’s lives.  The public distinguishes between “hard” and “soft” forms of science, with softer science perceived as resting on the personal judgments of researchers as well as on evidence.  Responding to the terms “behavioral science” and “psychology,” the public considers them both to be softer than the physical and biomedical sciences but harder than political science and philosophy, with psychology judged to be somewhat softer than behavioral science.  Most of the public view psychology to be worthy of increased levels of federal funding and agree that psychology addresses important topics such as workplace stress, parenting challenges, drug abuse, violence prevention, and the role of behavior in health. 

John DovidioIntroduced by APA past president James Bray, who established APA’s STEM task force, John Dovidio presented the major conclusions of the task force report.  Dovidio, of Yale University, served as chair of the task force.  He noted that psychology not only makes direct scientific contributions through its basic, applied, and interdisciplinary research but also helps to improve training in other STEM disciplines through its research in education and group processes.  However, the lack of full inclusion in STEM funding and activities impedes the progress of psychological research and prevents the broad population from receiving the full benefit of the knowledge and techniques that psychology can offer for confronting society’s major challenges. 

Dovidio emphasized the need to expand understanding by both the general public and policymakers of the scientific basis of psychology and of its role in addressing social problems.  Pointing to the exclusion of the behavioral sciences from recent discussions of K-12 science education by both the National Research Council (NRC) and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), Dovidio argued for the need to include those sciences in K-12 curricula as a means to increase public understanding of their methods and contributions.  As described below, other conference speakers also discussed the place of psychology within K-12 education.

In a subsequent presentation, Amber Story, deputy director of the Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Division at the National Science Foundation (NSF), confirmed that NSF views psychology and other behavioral sciences as STEM disciplines worthy of NSF funding.  She also provided insights into how federal resources get allocated across scientific fields.  An interacting set of organizations within the executive branch (including the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Management and Budget within the White House and the National Science Board, which oversees NSF) sets general priorities for research funding, based on national needs as well as scientific opportunities.  These priorities (which are also shaped by Congress) influence how funds are distributed in the federal budget and what special initiatives are developed.  Pointing to NSF collaborations with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in neuroscience and with the Department of Defense on sociocultural research, she noted that funding agencies increasingly seek to develop joint initiatives.  In addition to NSF’s standing programs and thematic solicitations, such interagency efforts are often useful sources of funding for psychologists. 

Story stressed the important role played by individual scientists and scientific societies in conveying to federal agencies the latest important ideas and approaches in their fields and how those can be applied to societal challenges.  She called for behavioral scientists to become more closely involved in planning interdisciplinary projects from the start, rather than as add-ons, especially in critical areas such as climate change and public health in which human behavior plays a major role. 

Advocating for Psychology

A panel on advocacy for psychological science at the federal level featured Howard Silver, Executive Director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA); Paula Skedsvold, Executive Director of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS); and Heather Kelly, Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer at APA.  They described the range of federal scientific funding agencies for which psychological science is relevant.  These include not only NSF and NIH, but also the Departments of Defense, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, and Veterans Affairs, as well as NASA and intelligence agencies.  Lobbying and other advocacy efforts are targeted both to these agencies directly and to the Congressional committees that authorize and appropriate funds for them.  

A recent focus for advocacy is K-12 education.  Following up on Dovidio’s comments, these speakers described the efforts of their organizations to convince the NRC and PCAST to include the behavioral and social sciences within their guidance for K-12 science curricula.  COSSA, FABBS, and APA argue that exclusion of those fields gives students a limited view of contemporary science, particularly of the life sciences.  They further note that early exposure to behavioral and social sciences can attract some students to science who otherwise would not become interested in it.  One obstacle these advocates face is the view that the behavioral and social sciences can be incorporated into social studies curricula.  Their response is that social studies as currently taught and administered do not  adequately convey scientific ideas and methods and that the future of the behavioral and social sciences lies in their interconnections with other STEM fields.  (For further background on these issues, see items in the September and October 2010 issues of PSA.)

Beyond the curriculum, the speakers also touched on the need to encourage inclusion of the behavioral and social sciences in such events as National Lab Day and in science fairs.   

Congressman Brian BairdGiven the federal budget deficit, federal funding for all areas of science and science education will be tight for the foreseeable future.  The speakers expressed concern that some members of the newly elected Congress would target behavioral and social science research in particular for budget cuts.  In a rousing lunchtime keynote speech, Congressman Brian Baird, of Washington state, reiterated that the threat is very serious.  Baird, who successfully fought an effort to exclude behavioral and social sciences from NSF funding in 2007, recommended that the field ramp up its lobbying efforts to enlighten members of the new Congress about the benefits of psychological science.  He emphasized that psychologists must explain their research and its contributions to improving human life in terms that laypeople can understand.  Baird further advised that educating members of Congress about how the peer review system works to identify projects for funding on the basis of scientific significance and quality, rather than personal or political preferences, should remain an advocacy priority as well.

Teaching Psychology

John BillingsleaAnother set of speakers examined how psychological science is presented in schools and to the general public.  John Billingslea, an award-winning high school teacher in the Baltimore County Public Schools, described his success in drawing students to psychology courses by presenting the field as a rigorous laboratory science and as relevant to topics that students are interested in, such as the brain, learning, auto safety, and pollution.  Given its intrinsic appeal for a wide range of students, he has observed that psychology serves to increase the number and diversity of students who go on to pursue science further in high school and college.  He noted that the national growth over the last two decades in the numbers of high school psychology courses and of students taking the psychology Advanced Placement test are positive developments, but that further progress will require enhanced teacher training and resources.  He called for psychological scientists to translate recent research into high school lesson plans and to visit high schools to present laboratory activities, for summer internships and workshops for teachers, and for the creation of innovative teaching and laboratory materials.

Turning to the undergraduate level, Pamela Scott-Johnson discussed her work with Project Kaleidoscope, a national program that aims to improve undergraduate STEM education, and as chair of the psychology department at Morgan State University.  Scott-Johnson has been involved in redesigning introductory psychology courses and the psychology major with the goals of emphasizing research experience and enhancing the meaningfulness of classroom and other academic activities for students as both individuals and members of broader communities.  Such an approach can serve to expand the number and range of students who become well educated in psychology, including those from underrepresented groups.

The Museum of Science in Boston has established a Living Laboratory, in which Boston-area cognitive development researchers conduct studies with children and their families in the museum itself and interact with museum visitors.  At the conference, Marta Biarnes, supervisor of the program, reviewed its organization and its success in communicating information about psychology and the scientific method to a broad audience. The program, which has initial funding from NSF, serves not only to increase public understanding of science but also to strengthen the connections between researchers and museums and to hone researchers’ skills in communicating their work.  Looking to the Living Laboratory as a model, other science museums have expressed interest in developing similar programs.

Building Interdisciplinary Research

The APA task force report included recommendations that psychology become more closely connected with other STEM disciplines through interdisciplinary research and advanced training.  Two conference speakers, both psychologists, described interdisciplinary research as a necessary and irreversible trend in science and talked about ways to facilitate such work.  Barbara Landau, chair of the cognitive science department at Johns Hopkins University, used language and spatial processing as examples of research areas that require psychologists to work with investigators in fields like linguistics, neuroscience, genetics, and computer science in order to understand both basic mechanisms and disorders and to develop effective interventions.   Similarly, Carol Christensen, director of corporate affairs at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, pointed to research on smell, taste, appetite, and related health issues as domains that call upon psychologists to collaborate with chemists, physiologists, nutritionists, and physicians. 

Barbara LandauBoth Landau and Christensen discussed how their organizations are structured in ways that make it possible for scientists from various fields to work together on research teams and to expand their skills to encompass methods from multiple disciplines.   At Monell, for example, scientists are not organized by discipline, and office and lab space are assigned such that people of different disciplinary backgrounds are close by one another.   At Johns Hopkins, graduate students are required to carry out at least two research projects using distinct methods from the disciplines represented in the department.  Resource allocations and incentives at both organizations are designed to encourage interdisciplinary and team-based research.  The speakers noted that their interdisciplinary approaches have been factors in their successes in obtaining federal funding and in producing students and post-docs who are competitive in the academic and corporate job markets. 

Moving Toward Action

The conference presentations stimulated many questions and comments from the larger set of conference participants. These discussions carried over into the break-out groups, in which participants formulated ideas for actions and policies for increasing understanding of psychological science among the general public and policy makers and for embedding psychology more strongly among other STEM disciplines.

The conference participants’ varied proposals included: improving certification requirements for high school psychology teachers; updating Wikipedia entries related to psychology; implementing a multi-platform public education campaign about scientific psychology; facilitating participation of psychological scientists in non-psychology conferences; creating a psychologists’ forum for sharing strategies to use in negotiating with academic administrators for laboratory resources; and building a mechanism for matching and recruiting psychologists to federal science positions.  Further details about these and other proposals will be presented in a future PSA article.


Howard Kurtzman is Deputy Executive Director for Science at APA.