International Psychology: Texan-Turkish Study of Learning Processes Thrives

National frontiers are rapidly shrinking for scientific psychology. The Internet links thousands of psychologists worldwide. Psychologists from about 100 countries will gather for the International Congress of Psychology opening August 16 in Montreal, Canada.

Yet actual research collaboration between American psychologists and their colleagues abroad lags far behind the psychologists and their colleagues abroad lags far behind the level that the friendly Internet exchanges and meetings at international congresses might suggest. In fact, international collaboration in psychological research appears to be running at levels somewhat below those currently achieved in other major fields of science, some officials of the National Science Foundation believe.

“I feel we [psychologists] are a litt1e bit underrepresented in the international programs,” says Joseph Young, the human perception and cognition specialist of NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Research (SBER) Division, and a Charter Member of APS

“We don’t do more poorly than anyone else in proportion to the number of applications submitted. Psychologists who apply generally do fairly well. But NSF Just doesn’t see a lot of proposals from psychologists.” The problem “isn’t lack of interest but it may be lack of awareness,” says Steven Breckler, who is responsible for the division’s social and developmental psychology program. “It’s just that nobody knows they can ask for funding from NSF’s International Programs Division when they are developing that type of collaboration or want to do so.”

The new program announcement of NSF’s Division of International Programs (publication number NSF-96-14) lays out a broad array of fundable international opportunities that includes:

-Cooperative research projects that help to internationalize domestic research projects whose core support comes from an NSF research division or other sources.

-Dissertation enhancement awards for graduate students doing research at overseas sites.

-Post-doctoral international research fellow awards.

-Joint seminars and workshops for U.S. and foreign counterpart investigators.

-Information on these programs is also available on the NSF home page on the world wide web, along with information on NSF core programs and other international funding opportunities at hrtp://

NSF has budgeted $16 million for funding by the Division of International Programs this year. The funds are to be used primarily for the U.S. side of the exchange and collaboration programs, but NSF is especially interested in facilitating the development of science in developing nations, Breckler points out.

“NSF has a special emphasis on investing in the kinds of collaborations where a U.S. researcher might potentially serve the role even of a mentor in trying to get research projects off the ground in a developing country,” Breckler said.

Many ex-Soviet, African countries, and other developing countries are sending representatives to the Montreal congress. They will come from some 50 countries not yet members in the International Union of Psychological Science, the sponsoring organization. But some of their national organizations are applying for membership in the Union.

Breckler and Young will be drumming up support for projects involving psychologists in such countries as well as advising psychologists on their potential proposals of all kinds at a session of the international congress in Montreal scheduled for Monday, August 19 at 5:30PM. The session was scheduled at the special request of APS member Kurt Pawlik of Hamburg University, Gennany, president of the Union, and Gery d’Ydewalle, Secretary General of the Union, who visited NSF with APS Executive Director Alan Kraut several months ago.

Advice Is at Hand

Throughout the year, psychologists at NSF stand ready to answer questions and give advice to researchers who are developing an international collaboration or who anticipate doing so.

Breckler says, “Give us a call. We can help guide you on how to prepare a proposal, what kinds of things are fundable and what things are not.” The staff include Breckler (social and developmental psychology), Joseph Young (human cognition and perception), Randy Nelson or George Uetz (animal research), and Fernanda Ferrera (language acquisition and linguistics). For their individual telephone numbers, call 703-306-1234.

A key to the success of a cooperative research proposal, Breckler says, is the ability “to argue that the international collaboration is important for the basic science- for example, the need for a particular population in country X, a particular situation there, or a unique local collaborators there. That’s number one, to show that the only way to get the basic science done is to do it with that specific kind of scope. And secondly, show that the research is also being supported by the local government or other local sources, which gives a very important signal that this is considered by the local community as meritorious research.”

The international program support for cooperative grants typically ranges from $10,000 to $15,000 a year for the three-year period of the grant. This is supplementary support to cover international and local transportation, some living expenses, and publications. If researchers need to cover salaries, major equipment or supplies, and other big items, they may go to the NSF domestic program or other sources for funding.

Eligibility guidelines for international programs are identical to those for NSF domestic programs. Many health-related fields are not eligible for NSF funding. Psychologists with core grants already funded by the National Institutes of Health might be prudent to contact NIH’s Fogarty International Center for Advanced Study in the Health Sciences (tel.: 301-496-2516, or e-mail: to see whether Fogarty or NSF would be the better channel for their funding proposals.

Strange Birds: Austin and Istanbul An example of a mutually beneficial NSF-funded collaboration is one that joint Michael Domjan of the University of Texas-Austin with Falih Koksal of Bogazici University in Istanbul for studies of how learning processes can influence naturally occurring behavior, specifically in the sexual behavior of quail. Domjan, an APS Fellow, had been working in this area with funding from NSF at first and then from the National Institute of Mental Health.

“Koksal came up with a number of rather interesting ideas and new directions in which to take the work,” Domjan said.

Their collaboration goes back to 1991, but the three-year NSF international cooperative research grant dates only to May of this year. They are currently exploring the malleability of mating, a behavior often considered to be predominately innate and regulated primarily by the hormonal system. They hope to extend the generalizability of conditioning phenomena beyond the traditional ingestive (e.g., conditioning to food) and defensive (e.g., shock avoidance) contexts. Specifically, they are examining the possibility that animals can learn to respond in a sexual fashion to an artificial object simply by observing another ‚Äúdemonstrator” animal. In this case, the artificial object is a soft terrycloth object about the size of the female bird that the male can peck, mount, and copulate with. To train the demonstrator bird to respond to the object in the first place, before the observer bird can possibly imitate his response, the artificial object is paired with the opportunity to copulate with a live female, Domjan explained.

“Koksal’s extension of this study is to see if this kind of learning is facilitated by observation,” Domjan said. The observers do learn to copulate with the artificial object. But do they learn how through observation? “The evidence,” Domjan said, “is a little bit complicated.”

The benefits for Koksal? Basic work on learning mechanisms is not well known in psychology departments in Turkey, so he has a better intellectual environment and laboratory resources to develop his ideas at the University of Texas, Domjan notes. One direct outgrowth of the collaboration is the establishment of a new laboratory to study learning mechanisms in Istanbul. And on Domjan’s side? “Koksal’s asking questions that I haven’t thought about,” Domjan said.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.
In the interest of transparency, we do not accept anonymous comments.
Required fields are marked*