Dr. Anne Petersen

National Science Foundation
Deputy Director

Luncheon Address


Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology


March 3, 1996

I am very pleased to be here today. I always look forward to an opportunity to meet with the psychology community.

As you know, my research focuses on adolescent development. Lately, there have been many days in Washington when I thought that there was a sudden explosion of the adolescent population. The government shutdown and its aftermath of trying to get caught up and move ahead simultaneously has pushed the Foundation's talented and very dedicated staff to its limits. Some days, it is difficult to put a positive spin on things. And then I read what must be the world's most positive outlook ever. Anne Boleyn, one of Henry VIII's wives who met a rather unpleasant fate, was reputed to have said, "The executioner is, I hear, very expert and my neck is very slender." Somehow the budget battles and the shutdown looked a little less grim.

Today, I want to talk about the national R&D enterprise, the role of psychology and other social and behavioral sciences in that enterprise, and the important role that the science community has in preserving the health of the enterprise.

From the end of World War II to the present, research universities and the federal government have been partners to develop knowledge and people critical for America's national security and improved general welfare. We have had an eminently successful partnership. But like all successful partnerships, the responsibilities grow with increasing success and diversification. And as we know from businesses and law firms, medical practices and school systems, the appropriate response is to expand the partnership to include a greater variety of partners to perform the growing complexity of work.

This partnership is now threatened. The end of the Cold War has caused many to conclude that economic well-being, one of the major post-Cold War rationales for the federal R&D investment, is best served by industry. Many concerns about universities--beliefs in neglect of teaching, inappropriate use of federal funds, and sloppy financial accountability--have also raised questions about the federal investment in universities. We believe that universities continue to play an extremely important role, but also believe that change is needed. We at NSF want to do our part to support that change--for example, in more effective integration of research and education, and we have or will soon, launch a number of experimental initiatives. As with all we do, we welcome your suggestions.

Nevertheless, particular components of the federal R&D investments, the social sciences and the technology programs have become targets of criticism in political debates over the past years. As representatives of the behavioral sciences, you know better than most about the high quality of U.S. research activities in these fields and the importance of so much of that work in helping the nation grapple with major societal problems. I am sure you have had as much difficulty as I have in hearing critics suggest that the social and behavioral sciences are not equal members of the R&D enterprise. Let me assure you that we at NSF do not hold that view.

Indeed, it can be argued that the social and behavioral sciences should be right at the center of the nation's R&D enterprise. In addition to advancing our understanding of behavior in a fundamental way, the social and behavioral sciences are what one might call "enabling sciences" or "partner sciences."

A recent book, The Stork and the Plow, by biologist Paul Ehrlich and two colleagues discusses the interrelated dilemmas of human hunger and environmental damage. Although we know that a good part of each one of these problems is connected to proper land use, the authors expand our perspective. They write, "Still, extensive environmental damage and hunger do not arise simply from ignoring nature's constraints. They are produced by a complex and often self-reinforcing interplay of social, economic, political, and natural forces operating at all scales--from rural villages to global trade agreements." Examples closer to home that highlight the essential contributions of behavioral science include the role of stereotypes in achievement and occupational reward behavior, and the role of beliefs in impeding use of technological or biomedical advances. Understanding behavior that we use daily in our administrative and leadership roles are foreign to my senior colleagues at NSF and other science agency heads, even those who instinctively do the right thing. Our field is extremely important to all of these areas and to the nation.

This is the perspective that all of you know and understand. It is the way in which the world functions or tries to function. Whatever we discover and uncover in the physical and biological sciences--be it biology, chemistry, or physics--that knowledge gives us only part, albeit an essential part, of the wherewithal for beneficial use. It is, in the long run, the pattern of human application of that knowledge in social, economic, or political systems that determines our societal success or failure. It is our understanding of these patterns through research in the social sciences, combined with an evolving system of individual and collective human values, that can keep the human race from continuously falling on its collective sword.

I am concerned that in our strong focus on disciplinary detail in all the sciences, we are neglecting an important opportunity to extend each field to the larger societal context in which it must be used. I believe this broader framework for graduate, and even undergraduate education, is critical but often ignored.

Just as we are seeing increasing interdisciplinary work in the physical sciences and engineering, I believe we likewise will see expanding work in the partnering of other fields of science with areas of social science. I'm sure most of you are aware of many more examples than I. In fact, I would be interested to hear more specifics from your own experience. At NSF, interdisciplinary research on (1) transformation to quality organizations and (2) human dimensions of global change are good examples of efforts already underway. In planning stages is a very exciting effort on Learning and Intelligent Systems.

Many of the problems identified by the recent Carnegie Foundation study on adolescence, for example, are at the very core of America's societal stresses and in need of long-term solutions. The report, as I'm sure most of you know, emphasizes the interdependence of effective social institutions and positive adolescent development that can reap enormous benefits for the nation as well as for the individual youngsters.

Basic social and behavioral science research will "enable" us to gain insight for these tasks. Because we live first and foremost in a human society, our most pervasive influence is always the human reaction to circumstances--in economic systems, in nation states, or as individual family members. With the help of the social sciences we can strive toward optimum performance and quality of life in all of these human interactions and systems.

This will require not only a strong and diverse research base in the social sciences but also the ability to apply this knowledge for program design and policy making. The latter more frequently will necessitate combining the analytic approaches of several different disciplines. Nowhere does the potential pay-off for cross-disciplinary work look more promising than in the social and behavioral sciences.

This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for us. As you well know, academic departments are not always persuaded to open their doors to strangers "bearing fruit" from another discipline. In the long run, however, I think we are discovering that interdisciplinary work increases rather than diminishes opportunities.

At NSF, many current research activities in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences are linked with those of other directorates to enhance our understanding of unexplored terrain. For example, recent advances in the area of human cognition, neurobiology, and machine computational processes have stimulated important new work that will advance computer design and understanding of human learning.

As I said earlier, I am eager to learn from your experiences because they will help us at the Foundation to have an even broader, more comprehensive perspective. This national R&D enterprise of which we are all a part has grown from the seedling that flourished at the end of the Second World War to a great flowering tree. Its branches have extended our knowledge and ability to improve our lives, increase our opportunities, and better understand each other.

It is not one discipline or branch, one technology or technique that could have achieved such spectacular results. The enterprise is much more than the sum of its parts. Damage to any segment, however, can undermine the whole structure. Our goal as scientists should be to support the enterprise in its entirety and not just our specific corner.

In the effort to balance the federal budget, public support for science and technology is very vulnerable, as is support for many other worthy programs. The role that the science and engineering community plays in articulating the value and contribution of its work to both the public and its representatives will be critical.

In this new environment, leadership from you, the science community, will require a much more public persona. You are needed more than ever to be visible and vocal in your communities. Neal Lane and I will be actively looking for opportunities to speak to citizens groups about science and technology in all our lives. The chance to talk to the local Rotary Club or the League of Women Voters is the chance to tell "science and technology's story."

The contributions that science and technology have made, the possibilities that they offer, the potential that they hold for our future--these provide the reason and importance for their continued support. If scientists go into the schools, as I know many of you have, if they interact in community affairs as "scientists," and if they pursue opportunities to speak out on behalf of science--then voters, and the policy makers they elect, will understand the value of our national investment in science and technology. However, without our explanation and outreach, the very things that we know can change and improve lives will not appear any different or better to the electorate than numerous other competitors for public support. Science and technology are not guaranteed winners in such a contest because they are sometimes difficult to fathom.

Although the public is fascinated with science, we also know that citizens have limited "understanding" of science. More important, the electorate has little understanding on how science and technology contribute to our individual lives, aspirations, and our national goals.

Although I am more uneasy talking to the Rotary Club than I am presenting research and results to my peers, I not only seek out chances to do it, but in the long run, I enjoy it. I hope you will take these thoughts back to your faculty and tell them that we at NSF are serious and committed to this new role for the science community. We believe that the preservation and prosperity of science in service to the nation depends on it.

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