Executive Director’s Column

Does APS Really Want to Accredit Science Training Programs?

The Association for Psychological Science's recent proposal represents a giant step backward.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

The research training programs of psychology, like all fields of science, focus their attention on training the next generation of researchers and scholars. The emphasis is on the production of scientific knowledge, with faculty who are actively engaged in research and supported by grants. The students conduct research, publish in scientific journals, and ultimately contribute to the base of scientific knowledge.

The research training programs of scientific psychology reflect great diversity in training philosophies. Some are built on an apprenticeship model, others are not. Some place heavy emphasis on formal coursework, others do not. Idiosyncratic training models reflect the idiosyncrasies of science – one size does not fit all. It is the same in almost all scientific disciplines – physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, and, yes, psychology.

It is common in fields of professional training for programs to seek and meet formal accreditation standards. The Liaison Committee on Medical Education accredits medical schools in the U.S. and Canada. The American Bar Association approves law schools. The American Psychological Association accredits programs in professional psychology. When it comes to professional graduate education, accreditation is an important activity and a service to society.

In stark contrast to professional training programs, the accreditation model is not typically applied to research training programs. Indeed, psychology has resisted the suggestion of research training accreditation, as have most fields of science in the U.S.

It is against this backdrop that recent news from the Association for Psychological Science (APS) is so stunning. Writing in APS’ Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Baker, McFall, and Shoham suggest the need for a new accreditation system – a system designed to accredit clinical science training programs. Sharon Begley, writing in the October 2 issue of Newsweek magazine, explained that “the Association for Psychological Science launched such a system to compete with the APA’s”.

The truth is that the new accreditation system is not really designed to compete with APA’s. After all, APA accreditation focuses on programs that train professional practitioners of psychology. The APS system focuses on programs that train research scientists. In essence, APS is suggesting that we begin accrediting research training programs. APA has never done that.

First in the sights of APS: clinical science programs. What will be next? Accreditation for cognitive science programs? Can accreditation for social psychology, developmental psychology, human factors psychology, or quantitative psychology be far behind?

Perhaps the advocates of the new accreditation program will protest, and insist that their focus is on programs that train the next generation of clinical psychology practitioners. I’ve read the APS article very carefully. The authors are very clear: they want to accredit training programs in which the emphasis is on the production of scientific knowledge, with faculty who are actively engaged in research and supported by grants, and where the students conduct research, publish in scientific journals, and ultimately contribute to the base of scientific knowledge. That sounds like research training to me.

It is surprising that APS – the professional association that claims to be dedicated to the advancement of scientific psychology – would endorse the idea of accreditation for research training programs in scientific psychology. This strikes me as one giant step backward for psychological science. APS should be developing ways to promote and expand psychological science, not creating extra layers of accreditation and bureaucracy for our research and science training programs.

All of this energy would be better spent toward the hard work of translating the insights of psychological clinical science into knowledge that practitioners can actually use in their day-to-day work and delivery of services. Just as the medical practitioner community is supported by fabulous translational tools, so too should the psychological practitioner community. This would be a far more constructive endeavor to which psychological science might apply its energy and insights. APA recognizes it. When will APS?