How to advance psychology as a STEM discipline: Proposals from the APA Science Leadership Conference

Conference participants recommend goals and activities for APA and the entire psychological science community.

The theme of the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Science Leadership Conference, which met on November 11-13 in Washington, DC, was “Strengthening Our Science: Enhancing the Status of Psychology as a STEM Discipline.”  Building on a recent APA task force report, the main goal of the conference was to develop proposals for activities that APA and other organizations and individuals could undertake to increase recognition of psychology as a core STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) discipline. 

More than 100 participants contributed to the conference.  They included representatives from almost every APA division and from each of the major APA governance groups concerned with science and education issues, as well as representatives from other behavioral and social science organizations and experts in STEM research and education. 

As reported previously, the direction of much of the discussion at the conference was set by the invited speakers, who offered a variety of perspectives on the task force report and on current efforts to nurture and promote psychological science.  

The bulk of the conference participants’ work took place in break-out groups led by members of the APA Board of Scientific Affairs.[1]  Each group focused on particular topics, such as public understanding of psychological science, advocacy for psychological science to the federal government, the infrastructure for psychological science within academic institutions, K-12 psychology education, undergraduate psychology education, and interdisciplinary research and training.  At the end of each main conference day, the break-out groups presented their ideas to the entire conference for further discussion and refinement. 

Conference participants produced a diverse set of proposals for strengthening psychology’s status as a STEM discipline.  These are presented below in a summary prepared by APA staff.  The participants offered suggestions both for expanding current activities and for initiating new ones, and their ideas encompass broad programs of action as well as more focused interventions.

In the coming months, APA governance groups and headquarters staff will determine which proposals will have priority for implementation by the Science and Education Directorates and other components of the APA central office, within the constraints of available resources.  Some of the proposals could also be acted upon by APA divisions and by other organizations and individuals within the psychological science community.  All psychologists are encouraged to adopt and pursue some of these proposals, on their own or in collaborations with APA and other groups.

Readers may share additional proposals for advancing psychology as a STEM discipline by sending an e-mail message to the Science Directorate.

Summary of proposals

A. Improving public understanding of psychological science

  1. Use the science of persuasion to inform public education and advocacy efforts on behalf of psychological science.  Develop messages that not only show how psychological science addresses topics of broad concern (e.g., health, aging, education, work, diversity, safety, national security) but that also challenge inaccurate assumptions about the nature and contributions of psychology.  Evaluate the effects of interventions (e.g., advertisements, social media, introductory courses) on immediate and long-term perceptions of psychology as a science. 

  2. Further discussion is required of the labels to be used in presenting psychological science to the public.  “Psychology,” “psychological science,” and “behavioral science” have been suggested as general labels, and some recommend that terms for more specialized areas (e.g., “cognitive science,” “developmental science”) be used instead of or in addition to general labels.  Among the factors to consider are the public’s views of “psychology” as only a clinical field and of the relations of psychological science with other behavioral and social science disciplines.  It may not be necessary to settle on a single or dominant labeling approach but rather to make sure to clarify or link terms as required in particular contexts.

  3. Update APA’s website to emphasize more strongly psychology’s status as a science and to highlight a greater amount and range of psychological research.  Use the website to demonstrate how current psychological science is addressing major challenges facing society and fundamental questions about human nature.  Convey information about research methods as well as the outcomes of research.  Include examples in which psychologists work with researchers in other STEM fields.  Update the website frequently to highlight new scientific achievements and directions and to link psychological science to current news headlines.

  4. Make available for every article published in an APA journal a brief summary of its contribution, methods, and significance written in terms that are accessible to the general public.

  5. Update existing Wikipedia pages on psychology and develop new pages to convey the field comprehensively and accurately.   Also update pages on topics in which psychology is relevant (e.g., health, disaster response) to include psychological content.  [The Association for Psychological Science recently initiated a project to enhance Wikipedia pages related to psychology.]

  6. Have APA forge connections with media companies to encourage greater inclusion of psychological science in television shows and movies.

  7. Develop TV commercials and short videos that communicate both that psychology makes significant contributions to society and that it is a science. 

  8. Make broader and more sophisticated use of social media and other new technologies (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs, podcasts, webinars, YouTube, TED talks, smart phone apps) to convey new developments in psychological science to a variety of audiences. 

  9. Time the release of news and feature items about relevant areas of research to particular dates on the calendar (e.g., Mother’s Day, Veterans Day).   Also, establish a National Psychology Week for concentrated media attention to psychology.

  10. Provide training to psychologists and psychological science organizations on how to present the field to general audiences through both old and new media.  Encourage psychologists to develop relationships with news and media organizations and to provide material to them on a regular basis, including in response to current events.  Material should be directed not only to mass audience outlets but also to more specialized outlets (e.g., publications for lawyers, business community, health workers). 

  11. Develop and implement strategies for communicating the nature and value of psychological science that are relevant to particular ethnic, racial, linguistic, and cultural groups.

  12. Provide training and fellowships to journalists and media professionals to encourage greater and more accurate media coverage of psychological science.

  13. Encourage psychologists to develop collaborations with science museums to develop physical and web-based exhibits showcasing psychological science and its methods. 

B. Advocacy at the federal level

  1. Increase the staff and resources for APA’s government relations activities on behalf of science and education. Many of the advocacy activities described below are already being pursued by APA but their impacts are not as great as they could be due to limited staff and budget. 

  2. Work to increase the number and range of psychological scientists in leadership, program staff, advisory, and reviewer positions within federal agencies.  Make psychologists aware of opportunities and encourage them to apply and be nominated for these positions (including in relevant programs that are not labeled as psychology).  Advocate for hiring/appointment of psychologists to all federal agencies in which psychological science can potentially make a contribution.  Publicize the contributions that psychologists have already made to federal agencies.

  3. Identify the interests and priorities of individual members of Congress, Congressional committees, and federal agencies and what psychological science can offer that is relevant to their interests.  Provide opportunities for them to learn about psychological science and meet scientists.  Focus in particular on new members of Congress and those who have expressed ambivalence about the value of behavioral science.

  4. Advocate for funding for psychological research and training as a core component of interdisciplinary programs (e.g., at NSF) and mission-oriented programs (e.g., at CDC, Defense, Energy, EPA, NIH).  Argue for support of both basic and applied psychological research.  Identify the long-term challenges facing the nation for which psychological science can make significant contributions and argue for increased funding for the training of future psychological scientists on that basis. 

  5. Lobby for inclusion of psychology among the STEM disciplines that receive an extended training period (17 months instead of the usual 12 months) for visitors on an F-1 visa.

  6. Work to increase the number of psychologists nominated for membership in the National Academy of Sciences and for other major honors.   Psychologists receiving such major honors can be highly effective in providing testimony and in lobbying policymakers. 

  7. Develop an up-to-date inventory of the contributions of applied psychological science (building on previous efforts by Phil Zimbardo and others) that traces their origins to basic research and shows their connections with work in other STEM fields.

  8. Identify psychologists who occupy positions in federal agencies and are not APA members.  Recruit them to join APA and participate in its science activities.  Provide forums in which psychologists from various agencies can network with one another. 

  9. Involve non-psychologists in advocacy for psychological science.  These include research collaborators from other STEM disciplines as well as leaders in such fields as business, health, education, and national security that make use of the contributions of psychology. 

  10. Enhance APA’s government relations news updates and alerts for psychologists (e.g., Psychological Science Agenda, SPIN, Public Policy Action Network) and disseminate them more broadly.

C. Advocacy at the local level

  1. Within colleges and universities, psychologists should work together to develop strategies for negotiating with administrators for resources for psychological science (including laboratory facilities, start-up funds, salaries, graduate student support, course relief), for placement of psychology within science schools/divisions, and for new STEM initiatives that include psychology.  These efforts can include training of psychological scientists and students on how to present their work effectively to administrators and colleagues in other departments.

  2. APA or other organizations should collect and report data important to psychology departments throughout the U.S. (e.g., on  laboratory resources, teaching loads, student support).  This is in addition to the salary data that are already collected. These data can be used to support local advocacy efforts. 

  3. Have academic psychologists encourage their administrators to engage in lobbying activities at the federal level (either directly or in coalitions) and to include psychology and STEM issues in that lobbying.  Academic psychologists can volunteer to help represent their institutions to federal policymakers (and should receive credit for such service). 

  4. Develop ties between psychological scientists and entities in their surrounding communities:  state/local governments, businesses, non-profit organizations, and schools.   Make use of these ties to conduct research (including community-based participatory research), to implement and test psychological interventions in the real world, to advocate for state and private funds for research, and to enhance public understanding of psychology.

  5. Create forums in which individuals and departments can share with one another their strategies and experiences in advocating for psychological science to administrators and surrounding communities (e.g., at the APA convention and division meetings, and through publications and social media).  Additionally, a national panel of experts can be formed that would provide advice to psychologists on how to advocate effectively at the local level.   

D. K-12 education

  1. Teacher certification:  Lobby for states and local districts to require science (rather than social studies) certification for psychology teachers in high schools.  Expand course requirements and options for science teacher certification to include psychology and behavioral science courses.  Provide courses to current social studies teachers to enable them to meet new requirements.  Reduce certification barriers for psychology-major college graduates to become high school psychology teachers, and offer academic programs to prepare and credential these graduates for high school science teaching positions. 

  2. Standards:  Advocate for inclusion of psychology within federally recognized standards and frameworks for science education (such as those being developed by the National Research Council).  Lobby for states and local school districts to adopt APA’s National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula for all high schools.  Working with other scientific and educational organizations, develop standard curricula for elementary and middle school psychology education.

  3. Develop new Continuing Education opportunities for high school psychology teachers, including summer workshops, lab internships, and web-based experiences.   APA divisions and other psychological science organizations can offer (and receive revenue for) high-quality CE.

  4. Develop new teaching materials, laboratory exercises, educational games, and web-based materials for K-12 psychology education that reflect the broad range of contemporary psychological science.  Publicize APA’s Online Psychology Lab more broadly. In addition, develop web-based materials for at-home research experiences that students can pursue on their own or as part of class projects.

  5. Encourage APA and other book publishers to release more titles on psychology for middle- and high-school readers (which would attract adult readers as well). There are currently few offerings at those levels.

  6. Have K-12 schools develop ties with psychologists and graduate students at local colleges/universities who can provide educational activities in classrooms, after-school activities, and summer programs. 

  7. Incorporate psychology into STEM enrichment programs for K-12 students, including those focused on students from underrepresented groups such as Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA).

  8. Raise awareness of science fairs at the regional and local levels. Develop more extensive resources and guidance for teachers and students at all levels on psychology projects for science fairs.  Existing resources for science fairs should be disseminated more broadly as well.

  9. Establish a National Psychology Week for special activities designed to expose students to psychological science.

  10. Develop materials that inform students’ parents and families about psychology as a science and about the further academic and career opportunities that education in psychological science makes possible.

E. Undergraduate education

  1. Evaluate the contents and teaching materials of introductory psychology courses to determine how students’ understanding of scientific methods and of psychology’s status as a science can be enhanced.  Add laboratory sections and experiences to introductory courses. 

  2. Continue efforts to develop guidelines for the B.S. and B.A. degrees for psychology majors.  Look to the requirements of other science majors as possible models for the B.S. degree.  Identify the factors that students should consider in choosing between the B.S. and B.A. tracks for the psychology major, including future academic and career plans.  Address perceptions common among students and their families that psychology is “easier” or “softer” than other scientific fields and does not require mathematics.  Develop new cross-departmental courses that link psychology with other STEM fields.  Extend these considerations to guidelines for A.S. and A.A. associate degrees at the community college level.

  3. Increase the availability of research experiences for undergraduates, particularly at under-resourced and minority-serving institutions. Without sacrificing hands-on experiences, make broader use of existing web-based laboratory resources (e.g., APA Online Psychology Lab) and develop new resources. 

  4. Disseminate the APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major (PDF, 164 KB) more broadly to psychology faculty, with an emphasis on Outcome Goals 1, 2, and 3, which directly address the science content of the major. Expand the Guidelines to cover education in specific sub-areas of scientific psychology and the connections of psychology with other STEM disciplines. 

  5. Encourage and support Psi Chi and other student organizations that focus on the science of psychology and encourage psychology students to identify as scientists.

  6. Develop post-baccalaureate educational and research opportunities for students who develop interests in psychological science late and seek to prepare for graduate school.

  7. Strengthen communications and advising for students and their families about academic and career opportunities arising from undergraduate education in psychological science.  Design communications and advising to be appropriate for students and families from a wide range of backgrounds. 

F.  Interdisciplinary research and training

  1. Design courses, modules, and seminars for graduate students and post-docs on the nuts-and-bolts of interdisciplinary, team-based research that involves psychology and other STEM disciplines.  Topics to be covered may include:  translating and integrating research traditions and methods across disciplines, grant-writing, publishing, distribution of labor and credit, ethics, and career issues (e.g., promotion criteria for faculty assigned to two departments).

  2. Provide guidance and encouragement for interdisciplinary, team-based research and training through:  programming at the APA convention and other conferences, specialized workshops and publications, student travel funding, and awards.  Highlight symposia and other sessions that present interdisciplinary research involving psychologists collaborating with researchers in other STEM fields.  Design advanced training/continuing education programs that examine the opportunities and challenges of interdisciplinary research in various areas.  Establish awards and conference master lectureships for interdisciplinary research and training.  Highlight examples of interdisciplinary, team research in newsletters and websites. 

  3. Publicize funding opportunities from both government and private sources for interdisciplinary research and training that may include psychology.  Encourage psychologists to shape and direct their work toward these opportunities.  Provide mentoring and technical assistance in preparing grant applications at the APA convention and other venues.  Encourage psychologists to seek out collaborators at their institutions and elsewhere to develop joint interdisciplinary grant applications; utilize pre-submission peer review mechanisms within institutions to ensure the quality of the science and of the team collaborations. 

  4. Have APA sponsor a conference aimed at assessing the structural barriers to interdisciplinary research involving psychologists and formulating approaches for overcoming these barriers.  (Barriers may include traditional professional identities, organizational boundaries between departments, promotion/tenure criteria, and publication practices.) Include academic administrators in the discussion.  Examine multiple models for organizing interdisciplinary work (e.g., links among traditional departments, short-term initiatives, cross-departmental programs, new departments).

  5. Have APA and other psychology publishers produce books, new journals, and special issues devoted to interdisciplinary STEM research and training.  Encourage authors to include discussion of the implications of their findings for other fields in their journal articles.

  6. Produce a compendium of resources on team-based and collaborative research (e.g., research findings, guidebooks, team software), and encourage further research on the collaborative research process.

  7. Establish mechanisms for matching scientists, post-docs, and students across psychology and other fields for interdisciplinary work.  Recruit graduate students in other fields (e.g., linguistics, biology, engineering) to take psychology courses.  Provide participants with guidance on funding sources for various forms of collaboration and mentorship.

  8. Examine the reasons for the underrepresentation of women and ethnic/racial minorities in particular areas of interdisciplinary research involving psychology and make sustained strategic efforts to increase representation of those groups. 

  9. Encourage psychologists to present their work at non-psychology conferences, and invite non-psychologists who conduct relevant research to speak at the APA convention and other psychology conferences.  Also, encourage other organizations that support interdisciplinary research that includes psychology to sponsor workshops and meetings at the APA convention and other psychology conferences.  Provide travel funding to encourage such outreach.  Publicize and offer awards to psychologists who successfully transmit and incorporate psychology into non-psychology fields and organizations.  

  10. Increase the number of presentations and symposia at the APA convention and other events that are available for viewing on the web and publicize them to non-psychology audiences.

G.  Strengthening the roles of APA divisions and other psychological science organizations 
APA divisions and other psychological science organizations can play major roles in advocacy, public education, development of educational resources, outreach to other STEM disciplines, and many of the other endeavors described above.  In selecting which activities to focus their efforts upon, organizations will be guided by their own priorities, resources, and ties to particular scientific communities. 

Central APA governance groups and headquarters staff can serve to coordinate and support communications among the organizations within an overall set of strategic goals.  Clusters of organizations with shared interests can also be encouraged to develop their own STEM-related objectives and collaborative activities.  

Note:  As a planning document, this report does not constitute APA policy or commit APA to any particular activities.

1.  The following members of the 2010 APA Board of Scientific Affairs were involved in planning the conference and chairing sessions and break-out groups:  Leona Aiken (BSA co-chair), Jennifer Manly (BSA co-chair), Robert Balster, M. Lynne Cooper, Robyn Fivush, Vickie Mays, Nora Newcombe, Kenneth Sher.