Submission—Psychological science in Australia

On 1 April 1996, the following submission was made to the National Board of Employment, Education and Training, Australian Research Council Discipline Research Strategies. It was prepared by a Working Party for the National Committee for Psychology.

Working Group

  • Professor David Siddle (Chair)
  • Dr Barry Fallon
  • Professor Kevin McConkey
  • Professor Chris Pratt
  • Professor Margot Prior
  • Professor Peter Sheehan
  • Professor Tom Triggs
  • Dr Geoff Cumming (Research Officer)

Executive summary

Psychology is the systematic scientific understanding of the behaviour of humans and other animals, and of human cognition and emotion. It is concerned with the processes that underlie behaviour, and the structures within which these processes occur. It is a behavioural science in that the inferences it draws about underlying mechanisms and processes are based on the measurement of behaviour. Nevertheless, it has strong links with both biological and social sciences. Because psychological science is also concerned with individual and societal problems, and with situations in which humans need to operate, manage and interact with complex systems, it is also an applied science.

Australian research in psychological science

Australia is performing strongly across the major fields of psychological science producing some 2.5% of the world's research in the discipline of psychology. It produces some 2.8% of the papers in the world's top journals and the impact of this contribution has been maintained over the past decade. This picture compares favourably with that of other sciences.

Nevertheless, a failure to recognise the diversity of psychological science and its needs for equipment and facilities is hampering research in a number of areas. This finding led to recommendations in relation to the Australian Standard Research Classification (ASRC), the administration of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Small Grants Scheme and the basis for funding university research. There is a need for improved research funding mechanisms that will support longitudinal studies and the creation of large research databases. In addition, we have argued that National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) should place greater emphasis on the psychological and social factors that are important in health.

Academic staff in departments of psychology constitute the largest group of researchers in psychological science. The profiles of age and appointment level of these staff indicate a relative preponderance of young and early-career staff. These profiles contrast markedly with those for many other sciences in which "greying" is a major problem. The need in psychology is for mentoring, starter grants, postdoctoral positions and other measures to assist early-career researchers.

Research, industry and national benefit

Research examples are included throughout the report. They illustrate that fundamental research in psychology often leads to the solution of practical problems and that the economic, social and other benefits are often substantial across varying time frames. A weakness, however, is the relatively low level of interaction between psychological science and industry. Such links must be strengthened as quickly as possible.

Priority areas for development

Consideration of national needs and current activity led to the identification of the following as priority areas for strengthening of research and postgraduate training:

  • human factors and other areas related to technological change;
  • clinical psychology, with particular attention to health
  • industrial and organisational psychology; and
  • neuroscience and physiological psychology

To illustrate some of these areas briefly, human factors (or engineering psychology) is the field concerned with the design of complex human-machine systems in order to maximise the effectiveness and safety of their operation. There is relatively low activity in this field in industry and little awareness of its potential. It is of strategic importance to Australian industry that research, training, and professional consulting in human factors be expanded. Accordingly, we recommend the establishment of a Key Centre for Teaching and Research in Applied Psychology (Human Factors).

Industrial and organisational psychology is the professional area most directly concerned with industry. It is under-recognised in Australia, and there is a severe shortage of qualified industrial and organisational psychologists. Research and postgraduate training in industrial and organisational psychology is a priority for development.

In modern society, many practical problems will be addressed most effectively by a multidisciplinary approach. Because of its diversity, researchers in psychology are especially likely to undertake research that is collaborative with other disciplines. In this sense, multidisciplinary research is of particular importance, and special efforts to improve the grant funding for such research are needed.

An overarching priority is that, across many areas of psychology, research, professional practice and teaching should take greater account of the range of cultural perspectives that are appropriate for contemporary Australia. Research should be especially mindful of indigenous peoples, and of Australia's responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific region.

Psychology: Discipline and profession

This review of the discipline highlights several vital issues relating to the profession, including the research basis for professional practice, communication between researchers and practitioners, and the understanding of research processes by practising psychologists.

The profession and the discipline are closely linked, and a major theme is that this linkage needs to be strengthened. We recommend strategies to increase communication between the discipline and the profession, and to reinforce the essential basis in the discipline of quality professional training and practice.

Preparing for 2010

Australia has a proud record in achieving significant social and economic advances through research-based programs that have resulted in behaviour change. Examples in which psychologists have played leading roles include reductions in road trauma, smoking and skin cancer. Substantial psychological knowledge is already available, with field studies confirming efficacy, that could yield further large and important advances in other areas. Examples include violence within relationships and families, stress and efficiency in the workplace, young children's learning difficulties, and mental health and illness prevention.

Substantial psychological knowledge has been acquired as the outcome of research in the last few decades, and the prospects for further research-based advances are excellent. If psychological research can flourish it will repay the investment handsomely and will help to ensure that the nation is much better equipped to meet the challenges of our future.


The recommendations are given here in full, grouped under themes. The themes draw together issues from all chapters in this report. In many cases a recommendation is a brief statement of a goal. Strategies for achieving the goal are suggested in the text accompanying the recommendation.

Fundamental research and research management

Recommendation 1

  • The Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council should emphasise their crucial role in further supporting researcher-initiated, fundamental research assessed by peer review.
    [ARC, NHMRC]

Recommendation 2

  • The higher level of funding under the Australian Research Council Small Grants Scheme should be available to psychology applications.

Recommendation 3

  • Funding mechanisms should be developed for:
    • the encouragement and support of longitudinal research studies; and
    • the development and maintenance of large research databases.
      [ARC, NHMRC]

Recommendation 4

  • The National Health and Medical Research Council should increase the emphasis on psychological and behavioural aspects of health, and should revise its policies and practices accordingly.

Recommendation 5

  • Increased encouragement and support should be provided for early-career researchers in psychological science.
    [ARC, NHMRC,universities, researchers]

Recommendation 6

  • Universities should fund departments of psychology at the same level as other science departments.
    [AVCC, universities]

Recommendation 7

  • The revised Australian Standard Research Classification being prepared by the Australian Bureau of Statistics should:

    • recognise Behavioural Sciences as a subdivision, and Psychological Science as a group within that subdivision, with an appropriately broad range of classes within that group;
    • be used by the Australian Research Council in place of its category code classification;
    • be used by DEET to classify research Masters and PhD degree completions.

Recommendation 8

  • Universities should intensify efforts to increase the proportion of women among academic staff in psychology, especially at senior levels.
    [AVCC, universities]

Recommendation 9

  • Multidisciplinary research should be encouraged, and the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council should review their procedures to ensure that multidisciplinary proposals are not disadvantaged.
    [ARC, NHMRC, universities]

Recommendation 10

  • International research links in psychology, especially those in the Asia-Pacific region, should be strengthened.
    [APS, ARC, NHMRC, NCP, universities]

Priorities for development

Recommendation 11

  • Research and training in the following areas should receive priority for strengthening:

    • human factors and other areas related to technological change;
    • clinical psychology, with particular attention to health psychology;
    • industrial and organisational psychology; and
    • neuroscience and physiological psychology
      [ARC, NHMRC, universities]

Recommendation 12

  • A key centre for teaching and research in applied psychology (human factors) should be established.
    [ARC, universities]

Recommendation 13

  • Research that takes account of cultural perspectives should be expanded, and should be accompanied by increased cultural recognition within psychological practice.
    [APS, ARC, NHMRC, NCP, universities]

Interaction with industry

Recommendation 14

  • There should be increased interaction between psychology and industry in terms of the generation and use of research findings.
    [APS, industry, NCP, researchers]

Recommendation 15

  • The guidelines for the Cooperative Research Centres Program should be amended so that proposals with a central involvement of psychological science are eligible for consideration.
    [Department of Industry, Science and Tourism]

Recommendation 16

  • The Income Tax Assessment Act should be amended to facilitate greater use of tax deductibility provisions to encourage psychological research of value to Australian industry.
    [Commonwealth Government]

The discipline and the profession

Recommendation 17

  • There should be increased research communication and collaboration between practitioners and researchers.
    [APS, industry, practitioners, researchers, universities]

Recommendation 18

  • Practitioners should be required to participate in continuing education that enhances their abilities as critical consumers of research.
    [APS, psychologists registration boards, universities]

Understanding of psychology in the community

Recommendation 19

  • Community understanding of the nature of psychological science and its applications should be increased.
    [APS, NCP, psychologists, universities]

Educational issues

Recommendation 20

  • Universities should give increased recognition to the difficulties of recruiting and retaining academic staff who have professional as well as research expertise in psychology.

Recommendation 21

  • Departments that wish to offer postgraduate professional training should make professorial or associate professorial appointments in those professional areas.

Recommendation 22

  • In relation to the PhD in psychology:
    • training in a range of methods for research design and analysis at an advanced level should be required; and
    • university regulations should permit a limited amount of additional coursework.

Recommendation 23

  • A broad range of research paradigms and methods should be represented in undergraduate and postgraduate training.
    [APS, universities]

Recommendation 24

  • Professional training should emphasise that psychological practice must be evidence-based, that ongoing evaluation and improvement are inherent parts of sound professional practice, and that practitioners need to be critical consumers of research.
    [APS, psychologists registration boards, universities]

Recommendation 25

  • Within the six years of professional training, departments should have scope to be innovative in the programming of essential course components. Course accreditation requirements should encourage such flexibility, while ensuring that the highest standards are maintained.
    [APS, psychologists registration boards, universities]

Recommendation 26

  • A substantial amount of practical work should be an essential component of core courses in psychology.
    [APS, psychologists registration boards, universities]

Recommendation 27

  • Well-designed courses in psychology should be offered at Year 11 and 12 levels, with particular attention to the quality of teaching.
    [State education authorities]


Recommendation 28

  • The bodies represented on the Working Group should set up a working party to encourage wide consideration of this report and implementation of its recommendations.

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