2012 APA Science Leadership Conference

Psychologists at APA Science Leadership Conference take a fresh look at how to advance the discipline

Focus is on strengthening psychological science within academic institutions and local communities.

By Howard S. Kurtzman, PhD

The theme of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) eighth annual Science Leadership Conference was "Act Locally: Promoting Psychological Science in Our Academic Institutions and Local Communities." More than 110 psychological scientists met to develop ideas for strengthening research and education in psychological science and for increasing the understanding and application of psychological science in local communities. The conference was held on Sept. 27-29, 2012, in Washington, D.C.

Opening session of the eight annual Science Leadership Conference
The conference participants, invited by APA’s Board of Scientific Affairs (BSA) and Science Directorate, included department chairs and academic administrators, scientists engaged in community-based research and in a broad range of other research areas, early career psychologists, graduate students and members of APA governance groups. They came from universities and colleges of all sizes throughout the U.S. The participants spent the bulk of their time working in small groups to develop recommendations for policies, programs and activities to strengthen the field and to enhance its connections with local communities. 

As reported in an accompanying article, the recommendations generated at the conference fell into four general areas:

  • Increasing public understanding of psychological science 

  • Strengthening multidisciplinary research and graduate education 

  • Strengthening undergraduate education 

  • Enhancing community-based research

The recommendations can be implemented at various levels: by individual psychologists, labs, departments and institutions, and by professional organizations such as APA. BSA and the Science Directorate are now working to identify which proposals are most appropriate and feasible for APA to pursue over the next several years. 

Nancy Cantor: Linking psychologists and communities

Two plenary sessions helped to lay the foundation for the small group discussions. In a keynote address titled “Can Psychological Science Serve the Public Good?” Nancy Cantor, president of Syracuse University, presented her vision of “scholarship in action.” Cantor, known for her research in social and personality psychology, previously served as chair of the psychology department at Princeton University, provost of the University of Michigan and chancellor of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  

Nancy CantorCiting recent efforts in Syracuse, Cantor argued that university faculty and students can engage in work that not only is scholarly but also responds to the needs of their surrounding communities. She discussed how universities can enable such work by building partnerships with community groups, allowing greater flexibility in the organization and scheduling of academic work, and broadening criteria for tenure and promotion. This approach recognizes the talents and expertise of members of the community along with the specialized knowledge of people within academic institutions. 

Psychologists are well suited, Cantor said, to engage in socially meaningful research and action, in such domains as education, health, economic development and intergroup relations. She called for psychological science and other disciplines to contribute to the solution of social problems rather than “living off” these problems by only studying them.  

Administrators on academic funding and planning

In another plenary session, a panel of six psychological scientists who currently serve or recently served as academic administrators discussed the challenges and opportunities for advancing psychological science within the tight fiscal environments that characterize most institutions today. The panelists were:

  • Camilla Benbow — Dean of Education & Human Development, Vanderbilt Univ. 

  • Ronald T. Brown — Provost, Wayne State Univ. 

  • Kimberly Andrews Espy — Vice President for Research & Innovation and Dean of the Graduate School, Univ. of Oregon 

  • Mary Anne Fitzpatrick — Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Univ. of South Carolina 

  • Valerie G. Hardcastle — former Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Univ. of Cincinnati 

  • Isaac Prilleltensky — Dean of the School of Education & Human Development, Univ. of Miami 

Sheldon Zedeck, a member of BSA and a former vice provost at the Univ. of California, Berkeley, served as moderator.

One of major points made by the panelists was that, under current conditions, departments will often be more successful in building on their strengths than in expanding their missions. They observed that budgetary constraints can actually help departments to focus more clearly on their strengths and on objectives tied to them. At the same time, strategic plans that are developed with broad input from the department’s faculty and are aligned with the larger institution’s goals can be effective in helping programs to move into new areas rather than just continuing with established activities. 

left to right: Sheldon Zedeck, Camilla Benbow, Ronald T. Brown, Kimberly Andrews Espy, Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, Valerie G. Hardcastle, Isaac Prilleltensky

The panelists advised department chairs and other faculty who seek program resources from administrators to base their arguments on data. Requests for resources should include specific information about how much the program currently costs and what it contributes to the institution in comparison with other programs (in terms of dollars, students, rankings, etc.). They should also contain realistic forecasts of how the additional resources would enhance the program and institution. Proposals for collaborations with other programs are often appealing to administrators, as collaborations benefit a larger portion of the institution and can lead to innovative forms of research and teaching.

Further, panelists noted that many psychology departments could do more to attract revenue. For example, some departments could develop professional master’s or certificate programs that would bring in additional tuition.  Fundraising among alumni and others should also be a priority. The pool of former psychology majors and their families, as well as others who are interested in psychology, is large. Working through their institution’s development offices, psychology departments can cultivate relationships with potential donors who could make targeted contributions, both large and small, to psychology programs.

Parallel opportunities: Multidisciplinary research and community-based research

In their small group discussions, conference participants devoted much of their time to developing ideas for nurturing multidisciplinary team science and for strengthening community-based research. In her closing remarks Science Leadership Conference participants discuss strengthening community-based research.at the conference, BSA co-chair Lynne Cooper noted parallels between these two areas (see also accompanying commentary). Both involve expanding psychological science beyond its conventional boundaries, in one case to reach out to colleagues in other disciplines and in the other to reach out to the members of surrounding communities. In both areas, she noted, psychologists will need to develop new scientific skills, as well as resolve such issues as how to assign credit and authorship and how to evaluate the quality of research. Organizational and budgetary structures within academic institutions will also need to be modified in order to allow faculty and students to fully engage with other disciplines and with communities.

But, Cooper concluded, the efforts to make these changes are worth it. Building connections with other disciplines and with our communities will lead to a richer psychological science that can more effectively address societal problems. 

See also: 

Additional coverage of the Science Leadership Conference will appear in the January 2013 issue of the Monitor on Psychology.
Howard Kurtzman is Deputy Executive Director for Science at the American Psychological Association.