President’s Column: Moving Forward, Looking Back  

By Christopher Newland

In May ABAI completed its 49th annual meeting in Denver, the second face-to-face meeting since the pandemic. Attendees travelled from across the U.S. and around the world to experience the joys of a face-to-face conference. With papers on basic, translational and applied research, issues relevant to the practice of behavior analysis, reunions and all of the other activities that occur at an annual meeting, the conference represented the intellectual breadth of behavior analysis on many dimensions while serving as a venue for behavior analysts to gather and hear the best of our science and its application, all while catching up with old friends.

Plans are underway for next year’s 50th anniversary meeting at the Philadelphia Convention Center. ABAI’s first half-century will be celebrated with historical perspectives to examine how we got started and how we have arrived at the ABAI that we have today. Program areas will include not only their usual sessions on contemporary issues but also retrospectives reflecting on how they got started, how they arrived where they are, and how the future looks. Overarching reflections on behavior analysis and ABAI are also being planned. This will be an exciting program for behavior analysts at all career levels.
I always return from the annual meeting rejuvenated about the field, and this year is no exception. Why? Many aspects of the annual meeting could be mentioned. The symposia contain papers describing the current thinking of our colleagues on topics that they are currently pursuing. The invited addresses and B. F. Skinner lectures provide an opportunity for investigators from behavior analysis and investigators in allied areas to offer an overview of their research in an unhurried way.

This meeting that we all enjoy so much is the product of a huge effort from an extraordinarily dedicated group of volunteers: the ABAI Program Board. The Denver Meeting comprised 2,711 presentations representing 16 topic areas delivered by presenters from 55 countries. These were given in 27 rooms scheduled for simultaneous sessions at the convention center.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to Linda Hayes, Program Board Coordinator, and Mitch Frying, Program Committee Chair, for coordinating our annual meeting. To pull this off, they worked closely with 29 area coordinators representing ABAI’s 16 areas. And these are all volunteers! The mind reels at how they were able to pull this off. Clearly, they are owed a debt of gratitude from all of us who so enjoy our annual conference.

The Presidential Scholar Address brought an exceptional scholar to the meeting. We honor that person by bringing the rest of the conference to a halt, so attendees do not have to choose between this and another session (although choosing between that and a drink with friends may be a different matter). This year’s talk was the capstone of Saturday’s sessions. Dr. Amie Zarling from Iowa State University spoke on her work applying concepts and approaches from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the prevention and treatment of domestic violence.

The SABA Awards Ceremony celebrated our members’ accomplishments. Linda Hayes was given the SABA Award for Distinguished Service to Behavior Analysis. Her acceptance talk, “The Company We Keep,” reminded us of the value of our professional and scientific friends in shaping and supporting our work and how we think about it in the lab, in our practice, and in service. The SABA Award for Scientific Translation was given this year to Kenneth Silverman. His acceptance talk, “Operant Conditioning to Address Poverty-Related Health Disparities,” described how he and his colleagues use behavior principles to address problems associated with substance abuse, unemployment, and maintaining HIV viral suppression.

The SABA Award for international dissemination went to Zuilma Gabriela Sigurdardottir of the University of Iceland for her efforts in taking behavior analysis in Iceland from one person (her) to a community of behavior analysts supported by two master’s and one doctoral program. The SABA Award for Enduring Programmatic Contribution went to Oslo Metropolitan University , for their efforts in developing a strong behavior analysis program and community in Norway.

Finally, the SABA Award for Effective Presentation of Behavior Analysis in the Mass Media went to APOPO, represented by Charles Richter. APOPO has received worldwide recognition for their training of African giant pouched rats (“HeroRATS”) to detect line mines and tuberculosis. By using principles of shaping and stimulus control, they have freed over 5.8 million people from the threat of mines. They have also trained the rats to detect tuberculosis, identifying 13,000 patients for treatment and also preventing numerous infections by limiting its spread.

Some exceptionally interesting sessions from the basic side of behavior analysis are the Science Board/SQAB tutorials, always a personal favorite of mine. These are sponsored by the ABAI Science Board in collaboration with SQAB. SQAB, an acronym with overtones of the favorite subjects of many of our basic sciences, the pigeon, stands for the Society for the Quantitative Analysis of Behavior. While the SQAB meeting is a satellite of ABAI, the two organizations have long sponsored sessions at which ABAI attendees can hear updates on theories of choice, behavioral economics, discounting, mathematical modeling, and many other topics.

Some SQAB tutorials are accompanied by a tandem Panel Discussion, held in the same room as the tutorial to make it easy to attend both sessions. Presenters consider how the tutorial’s topic might play out in an applied, or other settings. Such discussions cement an understanding of the concepts presented while discussing their implications. These tandem panels have been of extraordinary quality and well-attended. This year, for example, 175 people heard William M. Baum of U. C. Davis present “The Three Laws of Behavior: Allocation, Induction, and Covariance. ” This was followed by panel made up of Julian Leslie (Ulster University, Northern Ireland), Timothy Shahan (Utah State University, USA), and Carsta Simon (University of Agder, Norway), discussing the implications of Dr. Baum’s ideas. Previous years have included tandem sessions on the application of quantitative theories of relapse in Functional Communication Training, and the use of statistics in behavior analysis, to name just two.

Other Science Board/SQAB tutorials at this year’s meeting discussed the organization of behavior into bouts, and applications of information theory to experimental design. Next year’s Science Board/SQAB tutorials will be different but, I promise, they will be stimulating.

A new Theory and Philosophy Conference is being planned for the Fall of 2024 at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. The topic of the 2024 conference is “Approaching Complexity.” The conference will be organized as 4 clusters: Evolution and Neuroscience, Modeling and AI, Verbal Behavior, and Cultural Analysis. Each cluster will comprise two or three invited speakers as well as a discussant/speaker to synthesize the presentations. There will also be a panel discussion focused on the role of Theory & Philosophy in behavior analysis training programs. The organizers are excited about the integrative potential that this conference offers, and designed the speaker line-up with that possibility at the forefront.

Planning is underway for the next ABAI Autism Conference to be held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to be held March 18–20, 2024. The conference will include pre-meeting workshops and a series of talks on the practice of science of behavioral interventions in autism. This is always a popular conference. A terrific lineup of speakers have already been confirmed for the conference. Stay tuned!

I have beeen reminded on several occasions that ABAI is an organization that cares about the next generation. It supports students through funding for student projects via the SABA Thesis and Dissertation Grants and the Bijou Grants for developmental research. A huge proportion of the attendees at the meeting are students and student travel awards are available to help some attend the annual conference. As an example of the value the organization sees in its students, there are three student representatives (one with full voting privileges) on ABAI’s Executive Council.

Many past Presidents and Executive Council members have commented on being overwhelmed by the scope of what ABAI’s activities. Me, too.

But also important is how the organization carries out its business. As I noted in my Presidential Address, I have been awed by the degree to which data feed decisions made by the leadership at all levels, from broad policies at Council to the micropolicies carried out by the 8 boards, 6 journals, 15 program areas, 40 special interest groups, 96 affiliated chapters, VCS program coordinators, and many other entities. This is a data-driven organization at every level! It is also an organization that works hard to be transparent about what it knows and how it makes decisions. It may not seem that way at times, but it includes its many volunteers and, for really important issues, the entire membership in its decision-making, and to do that it has to share what it knows. ABAI cares about its membership and about ensuring that its membership plays a role in determining its present and its future. I look forward to seeing what the next year will bring on all these fronts and to seeing you all at the 50th Annual Conference, next May.

See you at ABAI!

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