In Search of a Sharper Image

William Howell, PhD, APA Executive Director for Science
Many of the difficulties that our 'science of psychology is facing' today stem from one overarching problem: lack of a valid, positive public image. Each of us has accumulated vast first-hand experience with this problem as we have tried to explain to our friends, relatives, coworkers, neighbors, and casual acquaintances--usually with little success--what we do for a living. In my case, itūs been a source of frustration for going on 40 years now.

But today, it's more than just a personal annoyance. This image problem is making it difficult for us to attract top students to our research-oriented graduate programs; to convince policymakers that we should be competing for National Science Foundation funds ('don't your folks belong at the National Institutes of Health?')--or in some cases, for any funds at all; and to convince potential employers that what we have to offer is precisely what they need. In short, it threatens our future.

Lest you write off this expression of alarm as the mere ravings of an aging curmudgeon, let me recount an exercise the Directorate went through this past year. In the course of planning how to invest a special $500k allocation directed by the Council of Representatives for the advancement of science, we solicited the broadest possible input from our constituents. Distilled to its essence, the predominant message we got was 'do something about the image problem.'

That's a lot easier said than done, of course, particularly because part of our problem is the popular stereotype of psychologist as synonymous with mental health service provider. And because our practitioner colleagues are currently mounting a big public education campaign to correct some misconceptions about their own image, it will be even harder to establish a distinct image for psychological science.

It's somewhat ironic that this problem has persisted for so long. Consider that almost every college and junior college graduate has taken an introductory psychology course, that weūre one of the largest undergraduate majors in the nation (about 65,000 seniors will graduate this year with a psychology major), and that 800,000 high school students each year are exposed to some kind of psychology course. With this kind of access, plus the science content of most elementary courses, one would think we'd have created some awareness of psychological science by now--at least among the educated public. But this doesn't seem to have happened.

We need to move on a number of fronts if the situation is to be improved--and at best, it will take a long time. Obviously, we must find ways to make better use of formal instruction--and I believe this is a priority of the Education Directorate. I've been discussing joint Science-Education ventures with Jill Reich, PhD, the new APA Executive Director for Education, and am optimistic that we'll be able to undertake some in the near future.

But the Science Directorate has several initiatives underway now that we hope will contribute in a less formal way to developing a clearer public image. One is the Summer Science Institute for 60 select undergraduates, which will hold its initial sessions next summer. Another is the Science Writers Fellowship program, which is designed to give influential media folks hands-on exposure to psychological science via extended visits to selected laboratories. A third is a PBS radio program, which will include science content in exchange for our sponsorship, and a fourth is a continuing program for training groups of scientists in advocacy activities. We are also generating a compendium of research success stories, primarily for use in science policy advocacy, that may find its way into more general circulation.

And then there is our Traveling Psychology Exhibition (TPE), whose progress you no doubt tracked in these pages, which has now played to over 3 million citizens. A new wrinkle to the exhibition program is an agreement we are about to enter into with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), whereby we will replicate a portion of TPE for permanent and prominent display in their new building (due to open next April). What better way to highlight our place among the sciences!

None of this, of course, will fix the image problem. But it seemed high time to quit complaining and start doing something, even if it amounts to little more than scratching the surface.

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