Recognising Psychology as a STEM Discipline

Psychology is not just a science in its own right, but makes important direct and indirect contributions to other Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. However, a report by the American Psychological Association (2010) , Psychology as a Core Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Discipline, has established, there are inconsistencies in the recognition of psychology as a STEM discipline, which has important consequences.

That psychology should be recognised as a STEM discipline is clear. It is the science of behaviour, and uses scientific methods to conduct experiments and create new knowledge about human behaviour. Scientific knowledge that often has important practical consequences for other STEM disciplines as the effective application of science and technology always includes some human element. Examples of the impact of psychological research are numerous: from improving the quality of health by understanding the factors that induce people to change their behaviour, to improving the procedures for clearing land mines. With branches such as engineering psychology contributing to the design of a host of new and existing technologies, from cockpit displays to toothbrushes. Psychological research also plays a part in addressing some of the world’s biggest and most pressing issues, such as the problem of climate change, a problem largely caused by human activity that can only be solved by understanding how people view the risks and how they can be encouraged to change their behaviour.

However recognition of psychology as a STEM discipline is not universal, or even consistent within the same organisation. Whilst the National Science Foundation provides significant funding support for the psychological research, it also explicitly lists psychology as a non-STEM discipline. This inconsistency extends across government departments, the larger scientific community, and to members of the general public. One study carried out for the American Psychological Association found that when asked how psychology attempts to understand the way people behave, only 30% agreed with the statement “through scientific research” whilst 52% agreed with the statement “by talking to them and asking them why they do what they do”.

The lack of recognition of psychology as a STEM discipline is not just an academic issue, but has significant consequences as it means that psychologists are often ineligible for funding education, training and research that could contribute substantially to STEM goals. As such it is important that both those within psychology, and external policy makers, take steps to enhance psychology’s role as a core STEM discipline. There is a need for improved understanding of the scientific basis for psychology amongst the general public, and the application of psychological science to people’s daily lives. There is also a need for increased opportunities and resources in psychological science, and greater collaboration with other STEM disciplines. Achieving these aims will both help with the achieving of STEM goals and the ability of countries to compete scientifically, technologically, and economically.

American Psychological Association (2010) Psychology as a Core Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Discipline. Available at: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2010/08/stem-report.pdf

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