Advancing Applied Psychology: KU Conference Focuses on Bringing Science to Society

On April 1 and 2, 2005, the department of applied behavioral science at the University of Kansas hosted a national conference, “Advancing Applied Behavioral Science in Psychology: Solving Societal Problems through Integrative, Empirical Research in the 21st Century.” It was supported by the KU departments of psychology and of psychology and research in education, the child clinical psychology program, the college of liberal arts and sciences, the graduate school, and Schiefelbusch Institute for Lifespan Studies.

The conference addressed four themes: barriers to applied behavioral science; advances in the integration of basic and applied research and conceptual analysis relevant to overcoming them; related progress in bridge or translational research for deriving, implementing, and validating science-based applications; and future research, training, and funding agendas.

Short History, Long Past
In their opening remarks, the organizers — Edward K. Morris, Rachel H. Thompson, and Gregory P. Hanley — noted the conference’s short history, but long past. The department of applied behavioral science was established in 1963 as the department of human development and family life. Frances Degen Horowitz founded it as a developmentally informed research and training program for the application of behavior analysis to problems of societal importance. Five years later, her colleagues Donald M. Baer, Montrose M. Wolf, and Todd R. Risley founded the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Before then, Baer, Wolf, and Risley had published research on basic behavioral processes in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (e.g., reinforcement, discrimination). Their later applications of these processes were thus among the first “bridges” between basic research and practice.

Bridge research is today called “translational” research, but is treated as if it were new, when in fact it is not. By today’s standards, though, the early literature is no longer translational, per se. First, although it was grounded in the basic research of its day, translational research is the extension of today’s science to practice, not of yesterday’s. Second, the application of yesterday’s science sometimes becomes so routinized that application is more like engineering than applied science, more like behavior modification than applied behavior analysis. There is a role for engineering, but it is not the same as applied science.

The conference addressed these issues by focusing on the integration of basic and applied research, and conceptual analysis. Without integration, the behavioral, social, and cognitive sciences are hampered. Psychology, for example, is in places divided among its mini-sciences of science, as opposed to being an integrated field of subdisciplines. It is in places divided among theories, , as opposed to being a set of complementarities. And, it is divided between science and practice, as opposed to advancing only science-based interventions and therapy. Taking behavior analysis as a microcosm for the macrocosm of psychology as a whole, the conference illustrated how science, practice, and theorycan be integrated in the interests of advancing translational research. Indeed, translational research presupposes integration — intradisciplinary integration.

Barriers to Application
The conference featured 10 prominent basic and applied behavioral scientists. Of the themes they addressed, perhaps the most pervasive, yet understated, were the barriers to advancing applied behavioral science in psychology — disciplinary, cultural, and substantive. A main disciplinary barrier is the hegemony of cognitivism — not cognition, per se, as a subject matter. The culture’s chief barrier is its deeply rooted aversion and even attacks on naturalizing the subject matters of the life sciences (e.g., evolutionary biology, psychology). The substantive barrier is the sheer complexity of the systemic interactions and transactions among behavior, biology, and environment.

These barriers notwithstanding, the presenters were optimistic about interdisciplinary contributions behavior analysis could make to psychology. Intradisciplinary and interdisciplinary research are the future of the behavioral, social, and cognitive sciences, as they evolve toward a unified science. However, as expressed by the state motto of Kansas — Ad astra per aspera (to the stars through difficulties) — although the work will be exciting and gratifying, it will also be difficult.

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