Upfront

Cognitive psychologist Richard Atkinson, PhD, has witnessed “stunning, spectacular” advances in the psychological and cognitive sciences over his lifetime, such as the understanding of the hippocampus’s role in transferring information from short- to long-term memory and the boom of the fields of artificial intelligence and psycholinguistics. But, he says, too often such work “isn’t quite recognized by the larger body of scientists and citizens.”

To ensure that the best research gets its well-deserved accolades, Atkinson has donated $3.5 million to the National Academy of Sciences to establish the NAS Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, a $200,000 award that will be given biennially to one or two people whose recent work has made significant advances in the psychological and cognitive sciences. The first prize will be awarded in 2014.

His own work has had that type of lasting impact. Atkinson directed the National Science Foundation from 1975–80, and was chancellor of the University of California, San Diego from 1980–95, president of the University of California system from 1995–2003 and a longterm psychology faculty member at Stanford University. He developed the first mathematical model of human memory, the Atkinson-Shiffrin model, which detailed the relationship between short- and long-term memory and inspired changes in computer-assisted instruction. It also helped explain the effects of drugs on memory, among other implications.

Atkinson is also widely recognized for publishing one of the first online scientific journals, for designing computereducation programs for children in low-income communities and for challenging the use of traditional scholastic aptitude tests as college admissions criteria. Thanks to his campaign, the College Board revised the SAT in 2005 to better reflect students’ quantitative and writing skills. Atkinson hopes the prize will bring attention to influential research in the psychological and cognitive sciences for years to come.

“I’m intrigued by Benjamin Franklin, who gave a gift to the American Philosophical Society that’s still in existence,” he says. “I’m hoping this [prize] will go on for a very long time.”

—Anna Miller