Science Briefs

Navigating the Highway of Psychological Science

"Supporting and Advancing the Careers of Scientists" was the theme of the Science Leadership Conference in 2006.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

The 2006 Science Leadership Conference (SciLC) focused on Supporting and Advancing the Careers of Scientists. Several invited addresses and symposia examined the future of the academy, how we can nurture careers in psychological science, and how to handle threats and obstacles that stand in our way.

The Future of U.S. Science in a Flat World

The keynote address was delivered by Neal Lane, formerly Provost of Rice University (1986-1993), Director of the National Science Foundation (1993-1998), and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (1998-2001). Drawing from his years of experience in science policy at the highest levels, Lane shared his thoughts about the future of U.S. science and the academy.

Lane provided some historical context for the forces that shape funding of science in the United States. Drawing from Tom Friedman's observations about a flattening world, Lane suggested that the world of science is also being flattened. He pointed out that there is too little money for science and too few people interested in science careers. Ideology and politics have intruded into science, and public understanding of science is poor.

Lane suggested that the future of science in a flat world demands that more of us become civic scientists - leaders who can reach across disciplines and communicate effectively with the public.

Threats and Obstacles

Neal Lane's keynote address was followed by a panel on threats and obstacles to psychological science. The panel was designed to address some common threats and obstacles, with the goal of improving collective understanding and developing a stronger position both to anticipate them and to defend against them.

The first speaker was Nancy Dess, a professor of psychology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Dess has been active in APA for many years, and currently serves as Chair of the Committee on Animal Research and Ethics (CARE). She talked about the threats and obstacles that form, unfortunately, an enduring part of the landscape of research with animals.

The second speaker was Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. Kruglanski co-authored a 2003 Psychological Bulletin paper with John Jost, Jack Glaser, and Frank Sulloway. Titled Political conservatism as motivated social cognition, the article offered a meta-analysis showing that the core ideology of political conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality. The article set off a firestorm, particularly from some conservative members of congress. Kruglanski shared his experience with these events and described how it changed his life as a scientist.

The third speaker was Simon Rosser, Professor and Director of the HIV/STI Intervention and Prevention Studies (HIPS) Program at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. In July of 2003, an amendment was offered in the House of Representatives that would have cut off funding from five specific grants already funded by the NIH. What the grants shared in common was a focus on sexual health and behavior. The amendment was narrowly defeated, but it had a profound influence on researchers who work in this area. Rosser was among those whose grant was targeted for rescission. He shared his perspective on the threats and obstacles to conducting research on sexual health.

The final speaker was David Stonner, a social psychologist by training and currently Director of Congressional Affairs in the NSF Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. The funding agencies must respond to Congress when questions are raised, and the agencies are in the awkward position of simultaneously defending their investments while asking for more money to invest next year. Stonner talked about the federal agency perspective when threats emerge, especially from Congress.

Institutional Review Boards

An area of growing concern for researchers who work with human populations is the way in which IRBs execute their responsibilities for the protection of human research participants. Enough concerns have been expressed from the research community that APA is mobilizing its efforts to address them. Along these lines, a SciLC 2006 symposium offered recent perspectives on Institutional Review Boards.

The first speaker was Philip Rubin, Chief Executive Officer and Vice President of Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, CT. Rubin provided a review of several recent commentaries on the IRB enterprise, including a recent report of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which he co-authored. That report, published earlier this year, suggested that federal regulations governing research with human subjects constitute a threat to academic freedom.

The next speaker was Gregory A. Miller, Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. Miller was part of a group that published the Illinois White Paper, which focused on improving the system for protecting human 
Ivor Pritchard delivering an invited address on IRBs and psychology.
subjects. The main conclusion of the white paper was that many IRBs show signs of "mission creep" - moving into areas of oversight for which they were not intended.

The third speaker was Thomas Eissenberg, Associate Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Eissenberg is chair of a new APA task force on IRBs, appointed by APA President-elect Sharon Brehm. He discussed the relationship between psychologists and IRBs, suggesting ways in which they can work collaboratively to protect research participants.

This panel was followed by an invited address by Ivor Pritchard, a Senior Fellow at the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP). Pritchard suggested that psychologists can bring their own science to bear in understanding IRB decision making. An example he developed linked research on the framing of risk scenarios with the framing of IRB protocols.

Taking Care of Ourselves

The second day of the conference started with a panel session on six different topics relating to the nurturing of careers in psychological science. The panel addressed the following topics:

  • Interdisciplinary Environments

  • Pipeline Issues

  • Mentoring

  • Diversity

  • Work/Life Balance

  • Alternative (Non-academic) Research Careers

Following the panel session, conference participants broke up into six smaller groups, and spent the rest of the morning brainstorming programs and activities that APA could develop in support of these six areas. Among the topics that emerged as highest priority were addressing pipeline issues and public education about psychological science.

Looking ahead

The final panel focused on perspectives on the future of the academy. Speakers included Bernadette Gray-Little, currently Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; Suzanne Bennett Johnson, Professor and Chair of the Department of Medical Humanities and Social Sciences at the Florida State University School of Medicine; Ruth Ault, Chair and Professor of Psychology at Davidson College in North Carolina; and Timothy McNamara, Professor of Psychology and Associate Provost for Faculty at Vanderbilt University.

The speakers (all psychologists) shared their perspectives on the academy, drawing from their years of experience with academic administration. Among the themes that emerged in this discussion was the growth of psychologists working in medical and health-related academic units, how the university research infrastructure is moving toward interdisciplinary research, and the importance of research in undergraduate liberal arts settings.

Not noted above are two important parts of the SciLC covered elsewhere in this issue of PSA - the exceptional poster session featuring 22 of the most promising new investigators in psychological science, and the awards presented to the 2006 recipients of the APA Awards for Distinguished Service to Psychological Science and Meritorious Research Service Commendations.