Science Leadership Conference

Policymakers and the public have a complicated view of psychology. On one hand, they’re grateful to psychologists for their counseling expertise and their skill in helping people dealing with stress and parenting. On the other hand, few laypeople think of psychology as a science, which makes it difficult for psychologists to get funding from federal programs aimed at supporting the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines.

Dr. Steven Breckler discussed the need to gather ideas on how to improve psychlogy's standing in the scientific community.How to improve psychology’s standing with the public and enhance its image as a STEM discipline was the topic the 2010 Science Leadership Conference, held Nov. 11–13 in Washington, D.C. Approximately 100 attendees listened to talks by scientists, educators and policymakers, and offered their own thoughts on solving psychology’s public-relations problem.

The take-home message? Psychologists are experts at communication, so they need to harness those skills to educate others on psychology’s clear membership among the STEM disciplines and how it complements other STEM fields.

Science or not?

The good news is that the public appreciates science, said Rhea K. Farberman, APA’s executive director for public and member communications, who opened the conference with an overview of the public’s thoughts on science and psychology, based on a survey and focus groups APA conducted in 2008.

“There’s room for pessimism and optimism,” Farberman said, but most people have a decent working definition of what science is and how it works, and most people support scientific endeavors.

The surveys and focus groups found that people use a sliding scale of rigor when it comes to rating the various fields of science, placing them on a continuum from soft to hard science. Social science and anthropology rank as soft sciences. Physics and astronomy are hard. And psychology? “They think of psychology as being somewhere in the middle,” Farberman said. In addition, only about 30 percent of people believe psychologists primarily use the scientific method, and most people think psychology consists largely of counseling and clinical work.

Those are depressing numbers, Farberman said, but she introduced a caveat: Labels matter. When psychology was described as “behavioral science,” people rated it as more rigorous. “When we use the label ‘psychology,’ the public doesn’t automatically think ‘science,’ necessarily,” she said. But when prompted to think of psychology as the science of behavior, they get it.

Behind the scenes

Policymakers and funding agencies have no trouble recognizing psychology as a science, but are often reluctant to include it under the umbrella of STEM disciplines due to misunderstandings about psychology’s scientific rigor or a perception that psychological findings are merely intuitive, said APA Past President James H. Bray, PhD, and Yale University psychologist John Dovidio, PhD, as they explained the findings from a recent task force report looking into psychology’s place in STEM.

With the advent of neuroscience, cognitive science, behavioral economics and a bevy of other psychological disciplines, “psychology is more relevant than ever,” Bray said.

Dr. John Dovidio presented results from APA's task force report examining why psychology is often overlooked as a STEM discipline.The public frequently fails to make the connection between health and safety and behavior. When people board an airplane, they don’t know that psychologists were instrumental in developing flight safety protocols and control panel designs, he said. And many people don’t realize that up to 50 percent of health problems are caused by behavioral factors, he added.

Psychology often seems invisible because it works behind the scenes to unite other fields of science, Dovidio explained. “We are a translational science,” he said. “We are interdisciplinary.”

A primary challenge to psychology’s visibility is that it is virtually ignored in K–12 science education, he said. People solidify their definitions of science when they’re young, and it’s difficult to overcome that early omission. One of the task force’s recommendations is that psychology be incorporated into early science education so that people come to identify human elements, such as risky behaviors or the strengths and limitations of vision and attention, as critical components of health, science and technology.

Next generation

John Billingslea spoke to attendees about his experiences teaching psychology to high school students.But teaching psychology at the K–12 levels can be difficult, said John Billingslea, a psychology teacher at Franklin High School in Baltimore County, Md. A major problem is that psychology programs are usually housed in the social studies department alongside world history and civics, he said. In students’ minds, that automatically splits psychology off from other sciences, Billingslea added.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to convince psychologists to become K–12 teachers, he said. But with the depressed job market, K–12 education might soon become an attractive option for many young psychologists.

Once they’re in the classroom, these psychologists can emphasize the science behind psychology by incorporating lab activities, Billingslea said. In his own classroom, students train rats to run mazes, dissect brains, run experiments on lateral eye movement and participate in a human factors lab where they delve into how design impacts health and safety.

Several of Billingslea’s students have gone on to study psychology in college, and many more were steered toward other scientific pathways. That illustrates psychology’s value to other disciplines, as it serves as a gateway to other fields of science, he said.

Branching out

Those connections among fields of science are the key to psychology’s role as a STEM discipline, said speakers at the conference. Barbara Landau, PhD, who chairs the cognitive science department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said that today’s intellectual challenges are too great for any single discipline to handle.

Dr. Barbara Landau shared her experience collaborating across disciplines in a cognitive science department.“Complex problems can’t be solved within a silo,” she said. Collaborations among disciplines are the only way to solve these problems.

Working with different disciplines comes with a host of difficulties, though. Departments aren’t eager to surrender funding or oversight, and it’s hard to find lab space dedicated to collaborations, she said, listing just a few of the challenges interdisciplinary partnerships often encounter.

But the next generation of scientists will be better prepared to handle collaboration, she said. Students and new faculty are increasingly interested in expanding beyond their own disciplines and working with other fields. She sees interdisciplinary teamwork as the inevitable future of psychology, in particular, and science as a whole.

“It won’t be an easy street to move along, but it’s worth it in the end,” Landau said.

Selling psychology

That sense of cross-collaboration is seeping into federal funding agencies, said Amber Story, PhD, a social psychologist and deputy director of the behavioral and cognitive sciences division at the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Amber Story explained how psychologists receive NSF funding indirectly, through interagency collaborations and cross-discipline initiatives.Psychology is indeed recognized as an important science by NSF, she said, but not much of the foundation’s funding trickles down to programs specifically set aside for psychological research. Instead, much behavioral science gets funded through cross-NSF initiatives and interagency collaborations. For example, psychologists are funded by Department of Defense programs and through collaborations with NSF’s Computer, Information Science and Engineering directorate, she said.

Getting further recognition and funding for psychology isn’t as simple as the director of NSF redirecting money to it, Story said. Federal funding agencies are beholden to Congress, so more funding for psychology will require convincing legislators of psychology’s importance.

“It’s far more compelling to have these ideas come from the scientific stakeholders themselves than for NSF to set priorities from on high,” she said.

And the way to raise psychology’s profile among policymakers is to make sure psychology’s voice is heard early on in talks about research directions. All too often, psychology is an “add-on,” Story said. Climate change scientists will suddenly realize there’s a huge human dimension to the problem; public health officials make behavior an afterthought when considering how to fight or prevent disease.

“We need to be at the table when the question is formed,” Story said.

Dr. Brian Baird explained the importance of making your work both relevant to critical world issues and easily understood by policymakers.Conference keynote speaker and former Congressman Brian Baird, PhD (D-Wash.), added that the Democrats’ loss of the majority in the House of Representatives will unfortunately compound psychology’s problems. “It’s going to be ugly,” he said.

Funding for federal agencies is likely to drop, and because so many people perceive social and behavioral sciences as “soft,” they’re likely to be targeted for funding cuts.

Baird’s advice is to be able to defend your work — and do work that’s defendable. Reining in government spending is necessary, he said, so recognize that “your grants are funded by money borrowed from your children. If you can’t explain [your research], don’t be surprised if you get attacked.”

When describing your work, use language that resonates with your audience, he said. Intellectual arguments pale in comparison with emotional ones, so be able to say why your research matters to society, not just your subset of academia.

“We’ve got a darn good product to sell, but we’ve got to do a better job of selling it, for the good of the country,” Baird said.