Psychologists Find a Place on the National Science Board

A watershed moment has arrived at the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation.  For the first time in the prestigious body’s 56 years, three of its sitting members are psychological scientists.

In addition to its NSF oversight, the board advises the President and  Congress on issues of scientific policy.  Since 2004, one of its members has been APS Fellow and Charter Member Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of its journal, Science.This September, two other psychologists were among the eight new board members sworn in:  APS Fellow and Charter Member Richard Thompson, Keck Professor of Psychology and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California, and APS Fellow Camilla Persson Benbow, Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Benbow notes that Leshner, author of a major textbook on the relationship between hormones and behavior, is also “a gifted science administrator and policy advocate,” that Thompson is a behavioral neuroscientist who studies the neurobiological substrates of learning and memory, and that she is an education researcher specializing in gifted children and development of mathematical talent.

“Research, education, and policy make a nice little triad,” she says.  “But the fact that we’re all psychologists, I think, says more about the breadth of the field today than it does about any specific change within the NSB.

“My hope is that this was not a fluke, but an indication that society is finally able to see the important contributions psychology can make.  I’m hoping there’s finally an understanding of the importance of psychology for enhancing our economic competitiveness and moving forward the human condition.  We want in the future to have the great ideas — like Google — occur here in America.  The work you do in cognitive science and learning and human development, all of those relate to those issues.”

Leshner says the threesome isn’t a fluke.  “What it reflects is a recognition of the importance of psychological science in the context of all the sciences, in the context of the broader scientific enterprise, and that I think is pretty clear.”  Significantly, he adds, “I don’t think we see ourselves as officially representing psychology per se, but rather that we have an obligation to be part of the broader scientific community.”

That community, and the NSB in particular, is grappling with large issues, Benbow says. “It’s exciting to be part of that, to be thinking about those issues and hopefully move them in a positive way.  That’s what’s so special about it.  You have an opportunity to effect positive change.”

The three arrived at NSB from distinctly diverse backgrounds and distances.

Leshner grew up in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey and attended Franklin and Marshall College in nearby Lancaster.  It was there that a psychologist, Charles Stewart, now professor emeritus, inspired him.  “He provided me with wonderful hands-on experience,” he says, “and transmitted the excitement and fulfillment of science and what life as a scientist might be like.”

After receiving his doctorate in physiological psychology from Rutgers University, Leshner joined the faculty at Bucknell University, then held senior positions at the National Science Foundation and served as Acting Director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse before assuming leadership of AAAS.

Thompson, on the other hand, was a child of the West Coast, and a rather precocious one at that.  Growing up in Portland, Oregon, he experimented with such toys as a “sodium cannon,” having discovered with his chemistry set that sodium bursts into flame when combined with water.  His “cannon” was a pipe sealed at one end and half filled with water.  Then he dropped in a marble and some sodium and “aimed it at our garage wall,” he wrote in an autobiography.  “Our first trial was our last.  There was an incredible explosion that blew the marble entirely through the garage wall.”

Luckily he later turned his attention to less explosive pursuits, including both psychology and neurophysiology.  His laboratory has received continuous federal research funding since 1959 and is now funded through 2011.  He served as APS president in 1995-1996.

Benbow, however, traveled farthest.  A native of Sweden, she arrived in the United States at age nine and lived in Pasadena until age 16, then moved back to Europe, first to Germany, then England.  She returned to the United States in 1975 to study at Johns Hopkins University.  She co-directs a study that has been tracking the development of more than 5,000 mathematically gifted persons since 1981.  In 2004, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the MENSA Education and Research Foundation.

While the NSB serves as advisor to the President and Congress, “We can’t go beating on their doors,” says Thompson.  “We respond to requests.  And they don’t have to accept our advice.”

A major vehicle for conveying that advice is the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report, a massive, two-volume compilation of data that, as Benbow describes it, portrays “how America stacks up in science — in education, the business world, research, investment in research, all the indicators of the strength of our scientific enterprise.”

Thompson is especially excited by involvement on the “Indicators” subcommittee which oversees preparation of the report.  What piques his interest is that the data could be mined to determine whether or not he and fellow behavioral neuroscientists are right in believing that their field is under-represented in the National Academy of Sciences relative to its share of the scientific community generally.  To his knowledge, no one has yet looked at the data to determine that, “but I will.  Or more importantly, I’ll ask people at NSB to do it, the experts in demography and statistical trends.”

Hovering like a storm cloud above the entire scientific landscape is the ongoing struggle between science and ideology.  It affects what research is funded and at what levels, and what policies address important concerns, from global warming to stem cells to evolution, to mention a few headline grabbers.

Leshner says psychology in particular is poorly understood by the public.  “People don’t understand there is a scientific underpinning to clinical practice. In our case they certainly have a very populist view of psychology, not a scientific one.”

He recently addressed the larger issue in The Chronicle of Higher Education, (see sidebar, page 15).  “We need to change our strategy, begin with actually enabling and training young people to do this kind of outreach and engagement (of the public),” he says, but “it has to go beyond permission. It’s one thing to say you may go do it, but you have to have a reward system and training program to help people feel comfortable doing this kind of stuff, not only teach them how, but that you should be doing it.”

Nevertheless, Leshner doesn’t believe it’s an issue the NSB is likely to take up anytime soon.  “I would love to see it,” he says, “but NSB already has a very full plate.”  If the board does become involved, “maybe it will help evolve some of NSF’s programs, which tend to focus on more traditional approaches.”

Benbow says she’s not so sure the science-ideology divide is anything new.  “This has been a problem throughout time. Look at Galileo, whether the Earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the Earth.  In the battle between science and values, oftentimes values will prevail. Especially in the social sciences, there is so much more that is affected by people’s values than other types of research.”

Whether having three seats at the NSB table will increase the likelihood that the board will take up such issues remains to be seen, she says.

“Each member will come with their own lens through which to look at a problem, their own questions that wouldn’t be asked if they weren’t there.  The fact that there are three of us there will affect not only how we look at an issue but the questions we ask.  It will by its very nature change the dialog.  That’s what happens when you add different perspectives to a group.  I guess having three psychologists will [mean] there will be different issues pursued and different questions asked.  By its very nature, that’s what will happen.”

Thompson says he is bringing his own agenda to the board:  “I would like to see a major push for increased funding in the broad field of brain and behavior basic research.  That’s something I would love to do.  The NSB hasn’t bought into it yet.”
He notes that the National Institutes of Health budget has not been growing, and NIH is increasingly emphasizing translational research that is disease-oriented.  As a result, “A lot of basic research on the brain and behavior, particularly behavior, is not getting as much support at NIH as it used to.”  NSF, on the other hand, does focus on basic research that isn’t disease-oriented, he notes, so it’s “a natural” for NSF.

And what are the main items on what Leshner says is NSB’s “full plate” crowding out other concerns?

Jump-starting transformative science, for one.  While NIH shifts toward translating what science knows into treatments for diseases, NSB’s Task Force on Transformative Research (Leshner is a member) is asking how NSF can encourage really groundbreaking innovative discoveries.

Transformative research, Benbow explains, is “paradigm shifting, really cutting edge work.”  One problem: It’s often hard to recognize until after the fact, she says.  “It’s also very high risk. How do you balance doing the high risk research but also being a good steward of your resources so you’re not wasting them on silly science.”  After all, most science is incremental, but sometimes, she says, it advances “by leaps and bounds.  It’s easy to see how you support the small steps forward, but it’s harder to pick those projects that are likely to move the science by leaps and bounds.”

NSF wants to do it.  NSB is trying to figure out how.

Finally, no account of the NSB can be complete without mention of the South Pole.  NSF is now building a huge telescope in Antarctica, and is conducting its “ice cube experiment,” a cubic mile of ice laced with tunnels trying to trap neutrinos, subatomic particles with no electric charge and little mass.

Every member of the NSB gets one trip to the South Pole, even psychologists.  Leshner was interviewed for this article as he was preparing to leave for his visit.  Benbow and Thompson haven’t yet been told when their turn will come.

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