A View From Australia

I  have loved psychology and fiercely defended its scientific nature ever since I was a 17-year-old undergraduate at the University of Sydney trying to decide between science and the humanities. To my amazement, the problem was solved on discovering that there was actually a science of the mind that required both a rigorous scientific approach and subtle verbal reasoning, though in those behaviorist days “mind” was still not a respectable concept in Sydney. Australia was a little backward then in catching on to new movements like the cognitive revolution. Articles and reviews took weeks to get to us and we did not travel much. Fortunately this is no longer the case. Most people in my own department go overseas at least once a year and many have overseas collaborators. Every year, we have a number of sabbatical visitors as well as many overseas post-docs, most of whom try and stay permanently. Life here would not be so attractive to these ambitious young people if it meant falling off the planet intellectually.

Given that the general public in Australia, as well as the rest of the world, has a nonscientific view of psychology (see any bookstore), students must be convinced of the possibilities and merits of scientific psychology. We do this now by using examples from “real life” where psychological investigation has produced useful, counterintuitive, or even revolutionary findings. When I was a student, however, inculcation of the idea of psychology as a science was done quite differently. We had lots of philosophy of science coursework even in the first year (logical positivism, Popper, “Sydney” realism), which made us confident that psychology could and should be a science and also made us critical in evaluating psychological ideas and claims.

The basic degree structure at the time was three years of work for a degree, with a fourth year for an honours degree devoted to two theses — one empirical and one theoretical, each about 70 pages. This system was based on the Scottish degree, not the English — Australia always had a good dose of Scottish and Irish tradition, reflecting 19th century immigration patterns. The degree structure survives to this day as the standard in Australia, but with the theoretical thesis largely replaced by seminar papers. A major difference from the United States, adopted from our British colonial masters, is the all-research PhD. In Australia, entry to both the PhD and accredited professional training requires an undergraduate honors degree in psychology, which means that the basic discipline has been thoroughly studied with serious research experience. This leads to  less flexibility for the student than in the United States, where post-graduate psychology can be entered from a variety of undergraduate experiences, but our system is more efficient.

The scientist-practitioner model is the basis of professional training in Australia, mandated by the Australian Psychological Society for accreditation, but the scientific base is undoubtedly weaker in some institutions than others because of research traditions and staff profiles. Private universities are rare in Australia and not prestigious.

My field is perception. This has traditionally been a core area of psychology, and I fully identify as a psychologist — not a cognitive scientist or a neuroscientist, despite having taught in an optometry school for many years in New York City. I believe that psychology has a common culture despite its great variety. This can probably best be described as an emphasis on devising clever methodology to explore interesting and difficult problems of mind and behavior in a scientific manner.  Core areas tend to define major classes of problems and solutions.

I felt fully integrated into American academic life in New York when I was asked (in 1986) to apply for the Chair of Psychology I now hold at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. I had not planned to come back to Australia, but the more I thought about it the more attractive it became. A major motive was to be part of a smaller scene where perhaps I could make a difference. American colleagues scoffed at this pretentious idea, saying, with some truth, that any difference one makes in the way things are run is temporary whereas scientific work is permanent (well, longer lasting anyway).  I am still fully engaged in my scientific work, but as it happens the time since my return has seen Australia enter a period of momentous change in universities and thus in the nature of psychological education.

The federal government is much more powerful relative to the states in Australia than in the United States and in 1988 it took over direct control of the funding and modes of governance of universities, leading to a period of some instability. For example, colleges of advanced education were converted into universities overnight without an adequate increase in funding. Models of funding seem to change with each new federal minister, and psychology, because it is poorly understood, has to fight hard for funding as a science and for a seat at various policy tables. It seems constantly necessary to persuade new sets of officials that it is a major discipline with great breadth; even “an enabling science” and not in the same category as occupational therapy and social work with respect to the type of education required. My naturally moralistic personality has come to the fore and I have been involved in struggles on many fronts for the maintenance of Australia’s old, rather high, academic standards during this period of rapid change, and for better recognition and understanding of the nature of psychology.

Another struggle in Australia, which we share with psychologists the world over, is against pseudo-scientific attempts to delude the public (including schools, businesses, and government agencies) with quick psychological fixes. For a skeptical country Australia is surprisingly vulnerable to such fads, perhaps wanting to be up with the latest overseas trends. I have enjoyed fighting these battles with some success.

Despite some problems with recognition, psychological science is very healthy in Australia. We are particularly strong in social psychology, perception, behavioral neuroscience, clinical psychology, and cognition and our research impact is high, especially compared to our size. We look forward to increasing participation in the internationalized Association for Psychological Science.


This article is one in a series of columns in which leading international psychological scientists share their work and experiences with Observer readers each month.

Observer Vol.20, No.9 October, 2007

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