Presidential Column

It Is the Best of Times, It Is (Not Quite) the Worst of Times

It was 1988 and I was starting my third year at Berkeley. One of my senior colleagues stopped by my office and dropped off a brochure describing the newly formed American Psychological Society saying: “You might find this interesting.” He was right.

The notion of an organization that cut across the various subdisciplines of our field, that was 100 percent devoted to the scientific side of psychology, and that would advocate for the support and development of psychological science was pretty irresistible (both to me and to the 5,000 or so others who joined APS in its first six months).

After attending one of the early conventions and getting to hear wonderfully interesting talks from all areas of psychological science, I was hooked. This was to be the first of many APS Annual Conventions for me, and, over the years, I became increasingly involved in APS activities and governance. With such a strong affection for the organization and such an enormous amount of respect for the APS staff and officers (both present and past), it is a great honor for me to have the opportunity to serve as President of APS.

For psychological science, in many ways, it is the best of times. Research in psychology is enjoying great visibility and success. A psychologist wins the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics and Science selects psychologist-led research studying the interplay of genes and stress in the development of mental illness as being the second most important scientific breakthrough of 2003.

APS has long supported “giving psychology away” to the public, and psychological science is clearly more in the public eye than ever before. New research findings are regularly reported by the major newspapers and magazines, and are increasingly becoming a staple of television and radio news. Although there clearly are exceptions, much of this reporting is quite good, making some of the most difficult topics more accessible to the educated lay public. This fall, APS, through its Fund for the Teaching and Public Understanding of Psychological Science, will convene a meeting of scientists and media representatives to come up with ways to continue improving the quality of this reporting.

These are times of enormous opportunity and challenge for psychological science. Advances in neuroimaging and molecular genetics will make possible kinds of research that once could barely be imagined. Much of this work will attempt to link biology with behavior. Psychological scientists working in these areas will be asked to provide the quality control for the connections that are made to cognitive, affective, social, developmental, and personality processes. To link the actions of neural circuits and genes to behavior will require major conceptual and methodological advances on both sides of the equation. If this work really takes hold, it is likely that we will need to rethink the ways that we train the next generation of psychological scientists so that they will have the appropriate skill sets to work as full partners in the new kinds of collaborations that will ensue.

In other areas, all is not so rosy. And although it may not be the worst of times, there are clearly challenges ahead. Throughout history, science has always been politicized. Still, the current scene seems particularly rife with debate about government’s role in directing and limiting specific areas of scientific inquiry. Moreover, with the US economy moving forward erratically, huge budgetary demands exacted by war, heightened security concerns, and changing national priorities, the rapid growth in science funding at the National Institutes of Health seen in the past decade has come to an end. Competition for increasingly limited research dollars will become more fierce and basic psychological science will surely suffer causalities.

Added to this, at the National Institute of Mental Health (which is the major funding source for basic behavioral science research at NIH), the NIMH current and past directors have been very open and articulate in their desire to see a greater portion of their research portfolio invested in science that has more direct public health payoff. This same theme is being sounded by patient advocacy groups (who have become increasingly well-organized and effective over the past decade) and by key lawmakers (who determine NIH budgets and thus have enormous influence on science policy). For us, the scientist “end-user,” this is manifest in the new emphasis on and funding for translational research (which applies basic research methods and concepts to public health issues) and in the desire of NIMH to move the funding of some of the most basic, non-disease oriented behavioral science research to other NIH institutes.

One of the nicest perks of the APS presidency (even beyond the private jet, palatial estate, and vacation villa) is the opportunity to write the presidential column in the Observer. In the coming months, I hope to use some of these columns to discuss these kinds of issues and opportunities more fully. And I hope that you will join me in these discussions, weighing in with your own thoughts and ideas. (You can send them to rlevenson@psychologicalscience.org.) In both the best of times and the worst of times, thinking about and planning for the future seems so much better than merely reacting to it.


Observer Vol.17, No.9 September, 2004

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