A year of progress: APA works to advance psychology as a STEM discipline

Initiatives in 2011 encompass federal advocacy, public education, multi-disciplinary training, treatment guidelines and K-12 education

By Howard S. Kurtzman, PhD

The American Psychological Association (APA) has devoted significant efforts in 2011 to achieving one of the major goals of its current strategic plan: Increasing recognition of psychology as a science, in particular as a core STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) discipline. APA’s activities have focused on enhancing the status and influence of psychology within broader arenas of science, education, policy, and funding, and on improving understanding of psychology among the general public. 

This article summarizes what APA has accomplished in 2011 and how APA plans to continue this work in 2012 and beyond. These efforts build on the recommendations of a recent APA task force report on psychology as a STEM discipline and on ideas proposed at the 2010 APA Science Leadership Conference.

Move to expand government relations capacity

In August 2011, the APA Council of Representatives approved a resolution to expand the resources that APA would devote to advocacy for psychological science at the federal level.  Among the activities envisioned are:

  • Direct APA advocacy efforts to a broader range of federal agencies that fund scientific research and training.

  • Increase the number of nominations of psychological scientists to federal advisory boards and panels.

  • Expand the Executive Branch fellowship program (which places psychologists in positions within federal science agencies).

  • Increase the number of briefings provided to Congressional offices on psychological science and its contributions.

  • Increase the number of workshops for assisting psychologists to take advantage of new funding opportunities and to help them advocate for themselves.

  • Create a national science advocacy network.

A plan for expanding APA’s capacity to carry out such activities is now being developed by the Board of Directors and APA management. Assessments will be made on a regular basis of the specific outcomes of any activities that are implemented.

Science focus for APA public education campaign

Since 1996, APA has sponsored a multipronged public education campaign aimed at increasing the public’s understanding of psychological services, stress management and the relations between physical and mental health. In 2011, planning for the next stage of the campaign began with the aim of broadening it to include, as a new major theme, enhancement of the public’s understanding of psychology as a science. Staff of the Science Directorate are among those in APA management working on plans for the campaign, with the Board of Scientific Affairs also providing input. 

As a first step in this campaign, a new website and publication on current psychological research on willpower and self-control will be released in early 2012. These materials will be linked to the release of APA’s annual Stress in America survey. Results from previous years’ surveys revealed that many Americans are interested in understanding and strengthening their willpower (to engage in healthy eating and exercise, quit smoking, reduce spending, etc.), which suggested that this topic could serve as a “hook” for engaging people in the methods and outcomes of psychological science.

Strengthening multidisciplinary training for psychological scientists

It is now broadly recognized that graduate and post-doctoral training should prepare psychological scientists to work within multi-disciplinary research teams, which is how research is increasingly being conducted (and funded) across all STEM fields.

In 2011, APA established a workgroup, chaired by Marcia Linn (University of California, Berkeley), to develop recommendations for steps that APA can take to advance such training. The Board of Educational Affairs and Board of Scientific Affairs also weighed in on how APA should address multidisciplinary training. These bodies formulated initiatives to accomplish such aims as:

  • Identify and respond to common barriers to multi-disciplinary team research and training (e.g., tenure and promotion criteria that emphasize independent research, rigid interpretations and implementations of APA accreditation requirements).

  • Produce repositories of information about successful multi-disciplinary training programs, including strategies to guide the development of new programs.

  • Sponsor summer institutes and conference workshops on the design of multi-disciplinary courses and programs.

  • Identify and develop resources for multi-disciplinary training in resource-challenged institutions.

The next step is for the Board of Directors to consider these and related recommendations for possible implementation in 2012 and subsequent years.

APA’s 2011 Education Leadership Conference also addressed multi-disciplinary training (see coverage in the Monitor). Among the speakers were Linda Smith (PDF, 735KB), chair of Indiana University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, who addressed the future of basic science training, and Bonnie Spring (PDF, 1.37MB) (Northwestern University), who discussed recent research on team science. The conference helped to lay a foundation for the future development of multi-disciplinary programs for both scientific and professional training of psychologists. 

Evidence-based treatment guidelines

One element of APA’s work in promoting recognition of psychology as a science is its support for the translation of psychological science to evidence-based practice. Its main route for achieving this translation is the development of clinical treatment guidelines, a major new initiative that saw significant progress in 2011. 

As described elsewhere, an appointed steering committee developed a process for APA’s guideline development and selected the first two conditions for which guidelines would be developed (depressive disorders and obesity). In 2012, it is expected that guideline development panels for each condition will be convened and that work will begin on the systematic reviews of the research literature that will serve as the basis for guidelines. 

Promoting K-12 education in psychological science

Introductory psychology is an increasingly popular elective in high schools, and for many students that class is the only formal exposure to the field that they will ever receive. Since 1999, APA has issued standards for the content and organization of high school psychology classes. In 2011, APA released its revised National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula (PDF, 826KB), which place stronger emphasis than before on the scientific foundations and methodologies of psychology and update the scientific material that is recommended for coverage in high school classes. 

APA’s previous standards have served to guide curriculum decisions in many states and local school districts. Over the next several years, APA will work to encourage school officials and teachers in all jurisdictions to align their psychology curricula with the revised standards. APA will also continue to develop teaching materials to help educators implement the standards in the classroom. (The APA Education Directorate and APA Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools play lead roles in these efforts.)

At a broader level, APA has advocated for greater inclusion of the behavioral and social sciences in curricula for kindergarten through twelfth grade. As discussed separately, APA and other organizations successfully lobbied the National Research Council (NRC) to broaden its new K-12 science education framework to include some behavioral and social science material. And APA leaders were among the major speakers and participants at a recent NRC planning meeting on the scientific, educational, and policy issues surrounding full inclusion of these fields in K-12 curricula. Working with its partner organizations, APA will continue to devote major attention to this area in future years. 

Other activities

The goal of increasing recognition of psychology as a science informed other efforts and achievements in 2011 as well:

  • Following lobbying of the federal government by many psychology and academic organizations, most areas of psychology were added to the list of STEM fields in which foreign students may qualify for longer F-1 visa extensions. This will allow students to remain in the U.S. for additional scientific training and work in psychology. 

  • APA continued to strengthen its coverage of psychological science in the Monitor, on the APA website, in press releases, and in social media. A new video series, This is Psychology, featuring CEO Norman Anderson, describes recent research findings and their connection to major social issues.

  • A reorganization of APA’s Center for Workforce Studies was initiated. One goal of the revitalized Center will be to collect data about the conditions in which psychological scientists work (e.g., salary, grants, laboratory equipment, teaching loads, graduate student support), which can be used by scientists and faculty in negotiations for resources.

  • The Board of Educational Affairs offered Awards to Advance Interdisciplinary Education and Training in Psychology to recognize contributions at the K-12, undergraduate and graduate/post-doctoral levels.

  • APA and the Living Laboratory of the Museum of Science, Boston, developed plans to cosponsor an exhibit on cognitive development at the 2012 USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo in Washington DC (April 27-29, 2012). The Expo is the nation’s largest science fair. 

There is of course much more to do. APA will continue to devote much of its work in the coming years to enhancing the status of psychology as a science and a STEM discipline. 

Other organizations and individuals also have roles to play. The various reports and meetings of the last few years have produced a wealth of ideas for projects to strengthen psychological science. All are encouraged to work on particular activities as appropriate for their goals and resources. Feel free to contact Howard Kurtzman of the APA Science Directorate (by email or telephone: (202) 336-5939) if you want to talk about these possibilities further. 

See also:

Task Force Report:  Psychology as a Core Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Discipline (PDF, 113KB) (June 2010)

Scientific and educational leaders respond to APA report on psychology as a STEM discipline (September 2010)

Advising the President on STEM education (October 2010)

APA Science Leadership Conference takes on psychology’s STEM challenge (December 2010)

Sharing the STEM: What I learned as a graduate student participant at the Science Leadership Conference (January 2011)

How to advance psychology as a STEM discipline: Proposals from the APA Science Leadership Conference (March 2011)

New focus on K-12 education in the behavioral and social sciences (December 2011)

Howard Kurtzman is Deputy Executive Director for Science at the American Psychological Association.