APA is working to resolve one of psychology’s great public relations problems: the fact that other scientists, lawmakers and the general public don’t always view psychology as one of the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — disciplines.

That misperception prevents psychological research from contributing to many facets of scientific development and cuts off psychologists from funding opportunities set aside for STEM research.

To address the problem, former APA President James H. Bray, PhD, created the Task Force on the Future of Psychology as a STEM Discipline to explore the barriers to psychology’s inclusion in the STEM disciplines and what APA can do to overcome them. In August, the task force released its report, presented at APA’s Annual Convention.

The task force, led by Yale social psychologist John Dovidio, PhD, argued that psychology deserves a place at the STEM table because designing new technologies and scientific applications always works out better when you consider how people will be using those technologies. Airplane cockpits, air-traffic control systems, computer networks and interfaces, and other tools have all benefited from psychologists studying how people interact with technology, task force members said.

Public safety also improves when psychologists are involved in technological advancement, they said, citing centered, high-mounted brake lights on cars, which are credited with greatly reducing crashes. In addition, psychologist-designed campaigns to reduce smoking, improve adherence to medication regimens and exercise cognitive skills in older adults have improved many lives, the task force said.

When technological innovators fail to consider how people will interact with their technology, disasters such as the Gulf oil spill and the Three Mile Island partial meltdown are more likely to occur, they said. But even when outright disasters don’t happen, projects can still suffer from a lack of productivity and efficiency if they ignore psychological input, said task force members.

So why do many non-psychologists overlook behavioral science as a STEM discipline? The primary reason is that many are unclear about just what it is psychologists study, task force members said. Psychology is a basic science, they said, employing the scientific method to unravel the science behind behavior. But due to media portrayals and the public’s sense that psychological findings are “intuitive” or “nonscientific,” granting agencies often overlook psychologists when it comes to awarding funds set aside specifically for STEM research, and in some cases explicitly bar psychologists from applying. For example, psychologists are excluded from the National Science Foundation’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program, which supports recently graduated scientists.

At the session, NSF Deputy Director and discussant Cora Marrett, PhD, said that part of the blame lies with the way psychologists argue for inclusion as a STEM discipline. When arguing for psychology’s status as a basic science, she said, the task force report describes science as an enterprise that seeks to “understand the natural world,” but fails to emphasize that this includes “the world of living beings and behavior.” Instead of trying to make psychology fit into the popular definition of science, she said, psychologists should seek to expand people’s understanding of science beyond the physical world. Marrett confirmed NSF’s support for the behavioral sciences and said that funding and definitions of disciplines shouldn’t pit different fields of science against one another.

Another discussant, Vivian Ota Wang, PhD, program director at the National Human Genome Research Institute, said that psychologists should consult with textbook publishers, who often set curricula, so that students get an accurate portrayal of psychology.

The task force report recommends that psychologists launch a public campaign to educate people about what psychologists do and how they can help solve society’s problems. To win over fellow scientists, the report urges psychologists to participate in interdisciplinary research to showcase psychology’s worth to other scientists and lawmakers and to lobby for appointments to STEM agencies, such as those within the U.S. departments of Energy and Transportation.

The report also argues that educators should teach psychology as a lab science at the high school, community college and undergraduate levels to reinforce the scientific status of behavioral science. To that end, discussant Jamshed Bharucha, PhD, provost and senior vice president of Tufts University and a cognitive psychologist, suggested that psychologists work with teachers to translate psychologists’ work into concepts that can be taught in K–12 settings.

Howard Kurtzman, PhD, deputy executive director for science at APA, said that APA’s upcoming Science Leadership Conference in November, in Washington, D.C., will focus on the task force’s recommendations and discuss how to turn those into effective practices and campaigns. “Positioning psychology as a core STEM discipline is one of the goals in APA’s new strategic plan. This report lays the foundation for many of our activities over the next several years,” he says.

To read the full task force report, go to Psychology as a Core Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Discipline.

Task force members

  • John F. Dovidio, PhD, Yale University, chair

  • Francis T. Durso, PhD, Georgia Institute of Technology

  • David J. Francis, PhD, University of Houston

  • David Klahr, PhD, Carnegie Mellon University

  • Jennifer J. Manly, PhD, Columbia University Medical Center

  • Valerie F. Reyna, PhD, Cornell University