Keeping Science Moving in Tight Times

What does the economic turbulence of the last year mean for psychological scientists?

As global markets shift and sway, colleges and universities across the globe are experiencing unprecedented economic uncertainty. Most are facing a harsh reality of cutting back costs while trying to keep the quality of their research and educational programs intact.

As this academic year starts, some APS Members have been helped by stimulus funding (see below for more information), but many Members at public and private institutions alike are facing stagnant or decreased budgets, hiring freezes, and more competition for limited research funding.

What are researchers and educators doing to keep their work moving during this crisis? Several APS Fellows share their stories of how they are keeping the science strong in tough times.

Think Long Term
Joseph Steinmetz
Executive Dean of the Colleges of the Arts and Sciences
The Ohio State University

Without a doubt, last year was the most difficult I have had in my nearly 15 years as a university administrator. In 2006, I took the position of Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas. Early in my term, we engaged in a careful strategic planning process that identified a number of goals to facilitate research and teaching at the institution. Included in these plans were strategic investments in quantitative, clinical, social and cognitive psychology that we believed would have a significant impact on the future of the university. Like the rest of the world, however, we did not anticipate the terrible economic conditions that subsequently developed. Last year, I was forced to cut the College of Liberal Arts and Science’s base budget by $3.5 million. That amounted to the loss of 25 faculty lines, more than 30 graduate student lines, and faculty travel funds. We also lost funds earmarked to develop new programs, including new investments in behavioral neuroscience. In essence, progress we were making to expand the faculty, improve teaching and learning, and develop programs was put on hold.

On July 1 of this year, I moved to The Ohio State University to become Executive Dean and Vice Provost of Arts and Sciences. As a state, Ohio has been hit very hard by this downturn in the economy. Unemployment is high and state revenue collection is significantly down, as is the case in many states around the country. Although sweeping cuts to The Ohio State University’s budget have not occurred, due mainly to a strong commitment to higher education by the governor and state legislators, we have become quite conservative and more tentative in our short-term planning as we anticipate that cuts may come in the future. In addition, the institution has held tuition constant for the last three years in an attempt to keep college education affordable during the difficult financial times that families are facing. The net effect is that overall funding levels have been relatively constant compared to previous years, which affects long-term planning. Like other disciplines, psychological science at Ohio State will be affected. Compared to previous years, we will move forward less aggressively to train the next generation of psychological scientists and to invest resources in the cutting edge behavioral science research that is desperately needed by our society. We may not know now what our budget situation will be in the short-term as the economic situation continues to unfold. I know one thing, however. After several conversations I have had with other deans around the country, I know we are a lot better off at Ohio State than many of our colleagues around the country!

We do believe better times are ahead in higher education as the nation slowly pulls out of this economic downturn. In addition, the federal government’s stimulus recovery funding has helped keep many research programs on track. At Ohio State as a whole, for example, more than 80 NIH or NSF proposals, as well as some facility improvements, have been funded through stimulus funds and that number is continuing to grow. And, as an institution, we have not stopped strategically planning for the future when financial times are better. Psychological science will thrive in the future — it is incumbent on all of us at this time to think in the long-term and be ready for better days.

How to Live with Financial Challenges? Think Beyond the Prototypes of Psychology
Art Graesser
University of Memphis

Nearly every sector of the world is suffering from the financial crisis. My university has hiring freezes, except for researchers with external grants. Students at graduate and undergraduate levels are finding it more difficult to get funding from the university and the outside world. In my family, my wife is reinventing herself after being laid off from a high-level computer programming position at a major corporation.

The irony with all of these challenges is that there are abundant resources to conduct research in our Psychology Department and the affiliated Institute for Intelligent Systems (IIS) at the University of Memphis. The faculty, staff and students are well funded if they are branching out into interdisciplinary areas in the IIS, such as computational linguistics, education, computer science, and neuroscience. They are investigating new phenomena, such as complex learning with animated conversational agents, links between emotions and cognition, discourse and social interaction, metacognition and self-regulation, dynamical systems that explain cognition and action, links between genetics and behavior, and other cross-cutting fields. They are not perseverating on well-trodden paradigms in psychology that have considerable attention in introductory psychology textbooks but are pretty much replete in unveiling new discoveries.

Technology is an important dimension to many of us in the IIS who build computation systems of learning, language, and discourse. We build systems with names and acronyms like AutoTutor, AutoMentor, MetaTutor, Writing-pal, ARIES, Guru, iSTART, iDRIVE, HURA Advisor, Coh-Metrix, QUAID, LIDA, ALEKS…the list goes on. Each of these systems is developed on interdisciplinary projects with impressive funding for researchers from multiple departments and schools. We obtain funding from NSF, Institute of Education Sciences, Department of Defense, and corporations large and small.

It is particularly interesting that psychologists are the principal investigators on these projects. Psychologists seem to have what it takes to gather together a diverse ensemble of researchers on projects with a common vision. I believe that psychologists have good intuitions and training to organize research teams in the new millennium of large scale projects that are interdisciplinary, inter-institutional, and international.

Don’t Worry, Think: My Response to the Financial Crisis
David Trafimow
New Mexico State University

Many psychology researchers have faced problems stemming from the current financial crisis. Some have looked for alternative sources of funding, altered their research agenda, taken on new roles, or otherwise changed what they do. My own response has been much simpler — I have not worried about it!

How was this possible? The answer resides in why I went into psychology in the first place. I thought it was fun and I continue to think so. It is fun is because the issues are so interesting; how could one fail to enjoy pondering how the human mind works, why people behave the way they do, and how to create a better theory of psychology than anything we have thus far? Possibly beyond that, there are important philosophical issues concerning what psychologists ought to be thinking about to begin with, the interrelations between theory and data, and many others. I find these and other questions extremely entertaining to consider, and so I consider them at length. Happily, there is no financial limitation to thinking, and so the financial crisis is irrelevant!

Of course, there is the problem of data collection. Here, I am fortunate in that my data collection costs are limited. I do not have special requirements and it is easy to find volunteers to act as research assistants. Hence, the financial crisis has not interfered in any serious way with data collection.

Even if my data collection were interfered with, however, all would not be lost. As I mentioned earlier, it costs nothing to think. The opportunity to do so is open to everyone, and there are theoretical journals that can act as outlets for such thinking. Furthermore, psychology needs more theoreticians and big issue thinkers. If the reason for being a psychology researcher is love of the field, then although the financial crisis might increase the difficulty of data collection for those researchers who do have special requirements, even those researchers nevertheless should retain the ability to think about the issues that interest them and write about those issues. And if one is a psychology researcher for a reason other than love of the field, then perhaps a reconsideration of priorities is in order.

In summary, I greatly enjoy being a psychology researcher and I continue to do so. Love of the field more than makes up for any difficulties brought up by the financial crisis. My advice to those who are discommoded by the financial crisis is to focus on why they chose to become psychology researchers.

Opportunities at NSF
Terry Langendoen
Expert, Information and
Intelligent Systems

National Science Foundation

I am in the somewhat happy position of having retired from academia four years ago (not the “golden age” certainly, but better than the current situation), and obtaining a temporary position at the National Science Foundation (NSF), first as a Program Director in Linguistics in the Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences Directorate, and more recently as a one-day-a-week “expert” in the Robust Intelligence Program in the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Directorate. As a result, I have been concerned more of late with the problem of funding research than with doing it myself. The increase in funding for scientific research and education that NSF has received to its base budget and as a result of the stimulus package has had some impact on making more research funds available in the areas of interest to APS members. More importantly, NSF is initiating new and continuing recently started solicitations that provide special funding opportunities for researchers in the psychological sciences, particularly in collaboration with partners in other fields, including computer science. Let me mention three and describe one in a little more detail: Cyber-enabled Discovery & Innovation (CDI), an NSF-wide solicitation; and two joint Computer and Information Science and Engineering-Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences solicitations — Social-Computational Systems (SoCS) and CreativeIT. SoCS raises the question of whether a special kind of intelligence emerges out of large numbers of people interacting on networked computational platforms that support collaboration, and if so, what its properties are and how it can be engineered for desirable outcomes.

In addition, I have been encouraging anyone who has been interested to apply to the Community-based Data Interoperability Networks (INTEROP) solicitation for funding to undertake bottom-up efforts to create and sustain interoperable data and resources for particular fields of science or engineering. My own experience in this area prior to going to NSF was in linguistics, and I am still active in it. I helped organize a special session on Computational Linguistics in Support of Theoretical Linguistics at the January 2009 Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in San Francisco, and I co-presented a paper in that session that outlined the need to organize the field so as to make massive amounts of linguistic data available and interoperable. In July, I attended a workshop entitled CyberLing 2009 at the Linguistic Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, in which that agenda was pushed forward.

New Possibilities
W. Warner Burke
Edward Lee Thorndike Professor of Psychology & Education
Teachers College,
Columbia University

Being an organizational psychologist, my research is in the field, not the lab, and is more applied. My suggestions for keeping the research work moving are therefore in that context. Three quick suggestions: (1) I have two data sets that my doctoral students and I have mined already. These sets are large and complex. Thus, there are additional opportunities for analysis and exploring unanswered questions. And I never throw data away. So return to your old data sets and mine them once again. There’s a question or two you haven’t answered yet. (2) This is not the time to be the Lone Ranger of research. Collaborate with your colleagues, pool your resources, and seek out that colleague or two with whom you have never worked. New ideas and energy may be ignited. (3) My work with organizations, especially in the corporate sector, is not at the present time ripe with opportunities. Although some nonprofit and nongovernment organizations are hurting, not all are. Also government organizations have funds and want help. Seek out organizations that are new and different for you and that will provide learning opportunities and unique problems to study — at least unique and new enough for you to work on. In my case, most of my experience has been within the corporate world. But now, I have an exciting opportunity to study and work with an agency of the United Nations. This final suggestion is also meant to urge us to move out of our comfort zones.

The Economy and Emeriti
Lewis P. Lipsitt
Professor Emeritus
Brown University

Retired academicians are a distinctive group. Scientists who don’t mean to be lost are often lost when they become “retired.” Science can suffer from this. This is because emeritus status usually involves, even without economic crisis, loss or significant reduction of institutional infrastructure that active faculty members enjoy in applying for grants which underwrite such activities. A palpable effect of the economic crisis on the elderly among retired scholars has been to reduce their participation in civic and professional events, and conventions, which require registration fees and travel funds. Although many emeriti in previous years have subsidized their own such expenses, the economic downturn makes this impossible for many scholars, and at the very least discourages this.

On a personal note, the effect of the economic downturn on my retirement plans has been to increase my availability for consultancies and speaking engagements, and to take up writing about the effects of the economic crisis on retired academicians!

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