Who Are the Scientists?

Who Are the Scientists?

William C. Howell, PhD, APA Executive Director for Science
Image of William C. Howell, PhD
William C. Howell, PhD
Our mission here in the Science Directorate is to advance psychology as a science. If you read any of our annual reports or planning documents, you'll find that we try to do that through several broad objectives, each of which accounts for a number of specific Directorate activities. For example, one objective you're undoubtedly familiar with is advocacy, and our activities in the policy arena receive regular--and rather prominent--coverage in this newsletter.

Although less visible, another stated objective--serving the needs of our scientist constituents--is equally important. In fact, you could probably include advocacy and all the other objectives under this heading. If we don't serve constituent needs, they will leave the Association, and our ability to advance anything is weakened.

But in trying to promote our service objective, we face a nagging problem. It's not altogether clear how the science constituency within psychology should be defined, and in serving the needs of some who regard themselves as such, we often find ourselves alienating others. Take, for example, our annual convention. Prompted by the basic researchers' increasing dissatisfaction with convention programming, we worked with the single-digit divisions to create a special "Science Weekend" miniconvention, and it was quite successful for a while. After a few years, however, researchers in other (more applied) divisions began complaining--legitimately--that they were being excluded. So we gradually ex-panded the participation, the programming became more diverse, and the basic scientists became unhappy again.

Our response this time was to replace Science Weekend with a new format, "Focus on Science," in which we helped a few divisions organize their entire programming within the same 3-day period. Because participation was voluntary and those signing on were mainly core science divisions, many of the basic folks seem happy again. Already, however, we're beginning to hear grumbling from members of nonparticipating divisions--by and large, from the more applied ones that were once a part of Science Weekend.

We run into a similar problem when we consider themes for the science section of the Monitor, select content for this newsletter, or solicit nominations of scientists for important positions within or outside APA. It even crops up in tabulating APA's science membership numbers. If you simply ask APA members to self-identify, a majority will claim some connection with science or academics. If you use a more restrictive set of defining criteria, that number decreases by more than 50%.

The worst part is that neither wing of our science constituency seems to recognize or respect the other very much--at least in private. I find that traditional academic experimentalists still tend to regard the work of those who study real-world health, aging, outcome evaluation, system design, education, or workplace issues as marginal science, whereas the latter tend to consider the former elitist, anachronistic, and for the most part, irrelevant.

There's nothing new about these attitudes. As one trained in the experimental tradition who has since worked both sides of the street, I've seen them change very little in nearly a half-century. What has changed is their distribution. Pragmatic forces, like jobs and research funding, have drawn increasing numbers of scientists away from the more basic pursuits and into the more applied ones. Which, to my thinking, has served to blur even further a distinction that was never very clear or valid or useful in the first place.

Whether the redistribution is a blessing or a curse, for science or society, is arguable, but also unresolvable, so probably not worth rehashing. What isn't debatable, however, is the fact that it has greatly expanded the boundaries of the constituency that looks to the Science Directorate for service. We try to give the needs of the growing body of applied researchers the same attention we have always given the more traditional contingent. But unless our scientists can become more accepting of one another, our ability to serve will continue to experience severe stresses and strains.

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