Psychology as a Core Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Discipline

Executive Summary

Psychological knowledge is essential to scientific and technological innovation. Technology requires the use of human operators, and understanding human capacities and limits is essential for implementing technological advances. Nevertheless, psychology is often excluded from the list of core disciplines responsible for scientific and technological progress – the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The goal of this report is to review the current status of psychology as a STEM discipline, articulate the problem of inconsistent recognition of psychology as a core STEM discipline, provide a rationale for consistent recognition of psychology as a STEM discipline, and recommend specific actions to achieve this goal.

  • STEM initiatives in education and training enhance human capital by providing:

  • Scientists and engineers who continue the research and development that is central to the economic growth of our country; 

  • Technologically proficient workers who are able to keep pace with rapidly developing scientific and engineering innovations; and 

  • Scientifically literate voters and citizens who make intelligent decisions about public policy and who understand the world around them.

Psychology is a core STEM discipline because of its direct scientific and technological innovations, as well as its indirect contributions to education and learning in science and technology. The achievements of psychological science include:

  • Designing new technologies, including airplane cockpit displays, air traffic control digital communications systems, the computer mouse and other computer interfaces, anesthesiology displays, and redesigning everyday tools, such as the toothbrush, for greater effectiveness; 

  • Promoting public safety with innovations such as the centered high-mounted brake light, which has been mandated on all passenger cars made since 1985 due to its life-saving effects;

  • Improving public health with basic and applied research leading to effective smoking cessation interventions, techniques for improving medication adherence, and activities to maintain cognitive vitality in aging;

  • Introducing new statistical techniques that are widely used in other fields, contribute to applied mathematics, and advance understanding of complex social behavior and decision-making; and 

  • Developing educational techniques that facilitate students’ mathematical and scientific learning and that help people address everyday problems by enhancing analytical skills, scientific literacy, and problem-solving strategies.

Technological solutions to large-scale problems routinely fail when they do not consider how people interact and behave in different contexts. The failures can be dramatic as with Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the recent oil spill from the off-shore platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Even when projects do not fail outright, quality, productivity, and efficiency can often be substantially improved by considering human capacities and behavior.

Nevertheless, psychology is not consistently recognized as a STEM discipline, and psychologists are often ineligible for STEM funding that provides support for education, training, and research. Consistent recognition of psychology as a core STEM discipline would:

  • Include a critical component – the human being – within scientific and technological solutions to pressing questions of national interest; 

  • Acknowledge the past success of psychological science in providing important breakthroughs in critical problems of public health, public safety, education and learning, and national security; and 

  • Capitalize on a large and diverse source of human talent that can contribute directly to national technological and scientific achievements.

The Task Force offers specific recommendations for achieving consistent inclusion of psychology as a STEM discipline and also identifies specific initiatives the American Psychological Association can take to facilitate the recognition of psychology as a core STEM discipline. The underlying goals for all of the recommendations are to:

  • Enhance psychology’s prominence as a core STEM discipline.

  • Improve public understanding of the scientific basis for psychology. 

  • Increase, through pedagogic collaboration and scholarly engagement, psychology’s involvement with other STEM disciplines. 

  • Expand educational resources and opportunities in psychological science. 

  • Promote the applications of psychological science to daily living.

Without deep consideration of human abilities and behavior, the benefits of technology and science are compromised. Thus, consistent recognition of psychology as a core STEM discipline and inclusion in STEM funding and initiatives are essential for achieving the goals of STEM initiatives and for ensuring the scientific, technological, and economic leadership of the United States into the future.