Scientific and educational leaders respond to APA report on psychology as a STEM discipline

Report raises awareness of the scientific contributions of psychology

By Howard S. Kurtzman, PhD

The American Psychological Association’s new report on Psychology as a Core Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Discipline (PDF, 113 KB) has attracted broad interest from scientific and educational leaders and is already being used to shape APA’s advocacy activities.

The report, which was formally received by the APA Council of Representatives in August, addresses the reasons why psychological science is inconsistently included within public and private initiatives to enhance STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) research and education and offers recommendations to APA and other groups for achieving consistent inclusion.  It was prepared by a task force appointed by 2009 APA President James Bray.  Members of the task force were: John Dovidio (Yale University), chair; Frank Durso (Georgia Tech); David Francis (University of Houston); David Klahr (Carnegie Mellon University); Jennifer Manly (Columbia University); and Valerie Reyna (Cornell University). 

A major point of the report is that psychological science addresses “a critical component -- the human being -- within scientific and technological solutions to pressing questions of national interest,” including challenges within “public health, public safety, education and learning, and national security.”   On this basis, the report argues, justifications for a broad range of support for both basic and applied psychological research and training can be developed. 

The report attributes the failure to fully include psychology within STEM policies and programs to decision makers often adhering to a popular view of psychology as a therapeutic enterprise based on intuition rather than science.  Thus the report offers detailed recommendations for increasing awareness of the scientific basis and contributions of psychology among the general public, researchers in other fields, academic administrators, funding officials, and government leaders.  Emphasis is placed on improving and expanding education in psychological science from the high school through graduate school levels, as well as on bringing psychologists into leading roles in interdisciplinary projects and into the management of government science agencies.

Convention Discussion

A session at the APA Annual Convention in San Diego featured commentary on the report by three prominent behavioral scientists:  Cora Marrett, acting director of the National Science Foundation (NSF); Jamshed Bharucha, provost of Tufts University; and Vivian Ota Wang, program director at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Marrett emphasized that NSF takes a broad view of science that includes research at the behavioral and social levels, and cautioned advocates not to pit one discipline against another.  She called for science education at the pre-college levels to focus on core principles that are common to all disciplines. 
Focusing on higher education, Bharucha noted that academic administrators often need to be educated about the complexity and rigor of psychological science and about its connections with other fields.  He also recommended that psychology be utilized more fully in the development of assessments and accreditation standards for undergraduate education.

Wang rallied psychologists to be more assertive about the value of their field and to play more prominent roles in interdisciplinary team science and in newer fields, such as genomics and nanotechnology, that can benefit from a behavioral perspective.  She went on to discuss the strong influence of K-12 education on public understanding of science and in building the pipeline of future scientists and pointed to the critical role of textbook publishers in shaping curricula for public schools. 

One issue brought up by all the commentators as well as task force and audience members was how advocates should balance justifications for support of psychological science that are based on its contributions to addressing current societal challenges (as emphasized in the task force report) with justifications based on its long-term contributions to the fundamental understanding of behavior.  Which type of justification is emphasized can have an impact on which types of research -- applied vs. basic --  are funded and encouraged.  While all agreed that both applied and basic research are necessary, no single formula for balancing them was offered.  Rather, the discussion tended toward a pragmatic view that arguments for both applied and basic psychology should be tailored to the particular organizations and audiences being targeted.  It is clear, however, that all such arguments need to be continually revised and expanded as new scientific directions and new societal and policy issues emerge.  

Commentators also stressed the importance of psychologists sharing their work with the general public through both traditional and new media.  Wang suggested that methods developed by NSF-supported research for informal science education can be applied to increase appreciation of psychological science among children and adults. 

STEM Education Standards

APA has already begun to use the information and arguments in the task force report in its advocacy activities. In July, the Board on Science Education of the National Research Council (NRC; an arm of the National Academies) released a draft version of a Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards.  When finalized, this framework is expected to provide the basis for national standards for science education at the K-12 levels. However, the current draft excludes concepts from the behavioral and social sciences from the “core ideas in science” that are intended to organize such standards.

Working in concert with other major behavioral and social science organizations, Executive Director for Science Steve Breckler communicated APA’s concerns in writing and in a specially called meeting of NRC officials and organization leaders held in early August.   Drawing from the report and other materials, Breckler stressed that the framework should take into account such considerations as: science is increasingly interdisciplinary; psychology in particular is strongly connected to other life sciences; human behavior is known to be an effective domain for stimulating children’s interest in science; and psychology is already being taught in large numbers of high school courses. 

The NRC is now evaluating the comments it has received from the behavioral and social science communities (as well as other groups) and anticipates releasing a revised framework in early 2011.  APA and its collaborating organizations are keeping close tabs on the process and will provide feedback on the next draft.

Independently, the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health is also examining the place of the behavioral and social sciences in STEM education at the K-12 levels.  It held a workshop on this topic on July 13 that was attended by federal officials, scientific organization leaders, and academic scientists.  Rena Subotnik of the APA Education Directorate presented the major points of the task force report, focusing on psychology’s status as both a basic and applied science and the central contributions of psychology to the understanding of learning and teaching. These ideas helped guide workshop discussion on such issues as: which fields count as core STEM sciences; cultural and institutional forces shaping views of the behavioral and social sciences; and the role of the behavioral and social sciences in STEM education reform.  Ideas emerging from the workshop will help direct future OBSSR efforts to increase public understanding of the behavioral and social sciences, improve science education, and expand the pipeline of future scientists.

Science Leadership Conference

The goal of the 2010 APA Science Leadership Conference, sponsored by the Science Directorate and Board of Scientific Affairs, is to turn the task force report into action.  Representatives from APA divisions and governance groups as well as other behavioral and social science organizations will gather in November in Washington, DC, to assess the report’s recommendations and develop action plans for implementing them.  The intention is for participants to leave the conference with a set of concrete tasks to pursue within their own organizations and communities for enhancing the status of psychology as a STEM discipline.  The outcomes of the conference will be reported in future issues of PSA.

The task force report is a step toward achieving one of the three major goals in APA’s new strategic plan: to increase recognition of psychology as a science. APA welcomes comments and suggestions on the report and on other topics concerning psychology as a STEM discipline.  Please share your thoughts with Howard Kurtzman (202-336-5939).


Howard Kurtzman is Deputy Executive Director for Science at APA.