Richard C. Atkinson bigraphy, stories - Psychologists

Richard C. Atkinson : biography

19 March 1929 -

Richard Chatham Atkinson (born 19 March 1929) is an American professor of psychology and academic administrator. He is the former president and regent of the University of California system, and former chancellor of U.C. San Diego.



Atkinson started as a professor of psychology at Stanford University, where he worked with Patrick Suppes on experiments to use computers for teaching math and reading to young children in Palo Alto elementary schools. The Education Program for Gifted Youth at Stanford is a descendant of those early experiments.

In 1975, Atkinson's career transitioned from research to administration when he was appointed as Director of the National Science Foundation. He later served as Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego and President of the University of California system.

Atkinson is widely recognized for his scientific, academic, and administrative accomplishments. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Education, and the American Philosophical Society. He is past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, former chair of the Association of American Universities and the recipient of many honorary degrees. Named in his honor are a mountain in Antarctica, and Atkinson Hall, the home of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at UC San Diego.


After earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. in experimental psychology and mathematics at Indiana University, Atkinson joined the faculty at Stanford University in 1956. Except for a three-year interval at UCLA, he served as professor of psychology at Stanford from 1956 to 1975. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974. His research on mathematical models of human memory and cognition led to additional appointments in the School of Engineering, the School of Education, the Applied Mathematics and Statistics Laboratories, and the Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences. The theory of human memory which Atkinson put forward with his student Richard Shiffrin has been influential in shaping research in the field of experimental psychology. Advances in computer-assisted instruction and methods for optimizing the learning process have been among the applied outcomes of his theoretical investigations.

In 1977, he received the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award.

National Science Foundation

Atkinson was nominated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter to be director of the National Science Foundation (1975–1980). Among his achievements was the negotiation of the first memorandum of understanding between the People’s Republic of China and the United States, an agreement for the exchange of scientists and scholars. It became part of a more comprehensive agreement on science and technology between China and the United States signed by Chair Deng Xiaoping and President Jimmy Carter in January 1979.

During Atkinson’s tenure at the NSF, skeptics in both Congress and the media mounted frequent attacks on government funding for basic research as little more than subsidizing idle curiosity about trivial topics at the taxpayers’ expense. This trend was aptly symbolized by Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards for waste and fraud in public programs. One was awarded to the NSF for a study of the sexual behavior of screwworm flies. As NSF director, Atkinson defended this and other projects, whose value Senator Proxmire ultimately acknowledged. He promoted the long-term importance of fundamental intellectual inquiry and led the NSF in conducting some of the early studies on the contributions of basic research to productivity and economic growth.

U.C. San Diego

Atkinson was chancellor of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) from 1980–1995, where he instituted a major administrative reorganization of the campus and began a sustained effort to strengthen UCSD's ties with the city of San Diego. This highly successful effort yielded important dividends in the form of financial and community support. Private donations rose from $15 million to nearly $50 million annually during his chancellorship. Despite a series of tight budgets in the late 1980s, he found innovative ways to fund the construction of new buildings and to support new academic programs. Its 1982 election to the prestigious Association of American Universities, consisting of the nation's top research universities, reflected UCSD's increasing academic status. Atkinson's tenure was marked by the campus's steady growth in size and distinction. UCSD's faculty expanded by nearly 50 percent and enrollment doubled to about 18,000 students. In 1995, the quality of its graduate programs was ranked tenth in the nation by the National Research Council.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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