2012 Science Leadership Conference

Reflections on the Science Leadership Conference

The future of psychological science lies in connecting to other disciplines and communities.

By M. Lynne Cooper and Kenneth J. Sher, PhD
The authors are the co-chairs of the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association.

The 2012 Science Leadership Conference, sponsored by the American Psychological Association’s Board of Scientific Affairs and Science Directorate, was a memorable experience. It was inspiring to spend several days with more than 100 dynamic psychological scientists examining how we conduct our research, train our students and relate to the broader communities to which we belong. 

As reviewed elsewhere, the conference had many high points, including a keynote address by psychologist Nancy Cantor, president of Syracuse University, and an insightful panel discussion featuring psychological scientists who are also high-level university administrators. Perhaps most important, however, was what the participants produced in their small group discussions: a rich set of recommendations that can serve as a roadmap for all of us to follow as we build psychological science over the next decade.

The recommendations include calls to develop our field in two directions: to strengthen the involvement of psychological science in multidisciplinary research and to enhance community-based research within psychological science. On the surface, these two directions for research may seem to have little in common. But across the two areas we see a convergence of challenges and opportunities.

Both areas require psychologists to expand our science beyond conventional boundaries and to reach out to others: to scholars in other disciplines (in the biological, social and information sciences, as well as humanities) and to members of local communities beyond our usual academic settings.  

Multidisciplinary research and community-based research each raise a host of new questions about how we do science. These include: ethical issues (whose standards should govern our conduct?); questions about the allocation of credit and authorship (who is an author or PI? in what order do we list their names?); and questions about how we evaluate and reward research (what counts as a major contribution? how should tenure and promotion committees assess collaborative work with nonpsychologists?)

In order to carry out either multidisciplinary or community-based research, psychologists will need to acquire skills that traditional forms of training typically do not provide. Working with our new collaborators, we will need to design new training models (for both students and those seeking to update their skills) that offer experiences in a wider range of frameworks, methods and settings.

At the administrative level, we will also need to take a look at how we (and our budgets) are organized into academic units and identify the structural barriers that prevent us from fully engaging with scholars and communities outside of our immediate disciplines. We should aim to dismantle those barriers and to establish mechanisms that encourage collaborations with colleagues beyond psychology.

Moving in these directions will require not just a great deal of thought and effort, but also a willingness to build true partnerships in which we freely share knowledge with one another and each participant gives up some degree of control. Such partnerships hold great promise for producing research that yields deeper insights into human behavior and leads to new strategies for addressing major societal challenges. 

Furthermore, an expanded psychological science that works closely with other disciplines and communities will spark excitement and draw attention from many quarters — from students to funders to political leaders. That’s a key component to keeping our field vibrant and influential.

Of course, not all psychological research need be multidisciplinary or community-oriented in order to be of high value and quality. We should not marginalize traditional approaches that still have a great deal to offer and represent the core of our discipline. Indeed, the broader conception of psychological science may, in fact, enable us to see the potential impacts of traditional work in a new light.

So let’s get started. All of us — at our colleges and universities, in our communities and within APA — have a role to play in building new connections and supporting the growth of psychological science.

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