Science Directions

As president of the Association for Psychological Science in 2007, John Cacioppo, PhD, made a now well-known case for understanding psychology as a hub science. Writing in the APS Observer, Cacioppo concluded that "the evidence is clear: The mapping of science shows psychology to be a hub discipline with a great deal to offer (and learn from) other scientific disciplines."

We expect nothing less of full-fledged STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. The tools, methods and theories of psychological science contribute essentially to biology, ethology, neuroscience, medicine, engineering, statistics and other related fields. Indeed, much of contemporary science owes its progress to the contributions of psychology and behavioral science.

Similarly, psychology has benefited from advances in chemistry, math, physics, computer science, statistics and many other STEM disciplines with which we share common pursuits. The interconnections and cross-fertilizations propel science forward, and psychology figures prominently in that mix.

One contribution for which psychology is very highly regarded and appreciated among all STEM disciplines is the basic knowledge we have accumulated on how people learn. Decades of research in cognitive, developmental and social psychology have profoundly influenced teaching and education, especially in the sciences. Pedagogy and developmentally appropriate learning sequences have vastly improved learning outcomes in math, physics and other STEM subjects considered so vital in K-12 education.

Just as physics and mathematics are foundational to progress across all the STEM disciplines, so, too, is psychology. Indeed, such contributions were clearly recognized by the National Academy of Sciences when it developed its recent framework for K-12 science education. Most of the framework's guiding assumptions and organization rest on the insight produced by psychological science. As Cacioppo declared, the evidence is clear: Psychology has a great deal to offer other scientific disciplines, and all of them are stronger as a result.

Yet, just as the Next Generation Science Standards arrive in K-12 classrooms across the nation, a peculiar irony emerges. The science of psychology was good enough to provide the foundation on which those standards are based, yet the science of psychology is not well represented among the standards themselves. Psychology will surely play a role in implementing those standards, but the subject matter of psychology will be largely excluded from the K-12 science curriculum.

Psychology thus finds itself in the role of scientific handmaiden: The discipline plays a useful but subordinate role in the advancement of science. It seems that the essential role for psychology is to assist other STEM disciplines, even if not fully admitted to their ranks as a scientific discipline itself.

Nevertheless, psychology should take great pride in this role. The discipline makes contributions that are widely respected and deeply appreciated. Even a subordinate role can be an important one, and all of STEM is stronger as a result.

The hazard is that psychology is too frequently cast in this role. Other disciplines thrive and blossom on the vine because of psychological science, yet our science itself is starved and deprived of essential resources. All of science will be stronger when psychology is cultivated as the hub science it truly is.

Other disciplines thrive and blossom on the vine because of psychological science, yet our science itself is starved and deprived of essential resources. All of science will be stronger when psychology is cultivated as the hub science it truly is.