Towards justice with Team Science

Our editor Jon Sutton reports from a 'Hands across the waters' session at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference.

The ‘Hands across the water’ session, bringing together the British Psychological Society and the Psychological Society of Ireland, has become a regular event at the Annual Conference. This year, an ‘s’ was added, with Amanda Clinton, Senior Director for the American Psychological Association’s Office of International Affairs, bringing them into the fold. 

Professor Brian Hughes (NUI Galway) kicked off, with his book Psychology in Crisis the backdrop for a rather more optimistic message. ‘We have wonderful opportunities to ride the wave of transformation and progress,’ he said. That change, it could be argued, is overdue. Evoking William James – ‘statistical analysis as we know it is Irish’ – and the contents of his Principles of Psychology, Hughes suggested it is remarkable to be able to recognise that ‘Victorian architecture’ of psychology in 2019. 

But what of how the masses understand psychology? Hughes turned to media depictions. These often report results with no acknowledgement of the non-human basis (see the Twitter account @justsaysinmice), or rely on well-worn tropes with an eye on web hits. (Hughes pulled up dozens of ‘Is x making you fat?’ headlines, including whether thinking about what makes you fat is making you fat.) ‘This is psychology as most people recognise it,’ Hughes claimed. ‘Trivial ideas are quite popular in society.’

Psychology is a fertile breeding ground for the spurious results which can plague any scientific discipline, according to Hughes. Small samples, small effects, studies of fashionable subject matter, topics where researchers may have personal bias… all in all, what Hughes calls ‘rampant methodological flexibility’. 

So what’s the solution? The last few years have seen psychology taking a lead in impressive efforts to clean up science in general. But, Hughes warned, ‘none of the open science initiatives create an incentive to replicate’. Only around 1 per cent of papers are replications, and ‘if you don’t do replication, you can’t have a replication culture’. 

It’s only by redoubling efforts to get our house in order and ‘stand up for psychology’, Hughes concluded, that we can move towards ‘evidence-based social justice’ – an area where, he said proudly, the Psychological Society of Ireland has been ‘vocal and heard’.

Representing the UK, Dr Katherine Button (University of Bath) had some fascinating insights on ‘shifting incentives to reward team science’. Currently, those incentives in academia are all about novel, large and exciting effects. The number of significant findings in published papers – particularly the cluster just under p < .05 – suggests psychologists are either ‘asking questions to which we already know the answer, or predicting the future, or…’

Button reported that intense competition and time pressure are cited as the main reasons for irreproducible research, and that in an ‘increasingly competitive environment’ there is (according to her own analysis) a ‘premium for being male’ in terms of becoming a Principal Investigator. But it starts early: student projects are ‘a microcosm of these issues’, as the wrong culture becomes embedded at the earliest stage. 

Button is addressing this through changes to the undergraduate dissertation, with pre-registration as ‘the most powerful thing you can do’. Yet it’s still tricky to put in place a mechanism to reward the all-important teamwork that many undergraduates display throughout their projects. ‘We need to train psychologists for the future of team science,’ Button urged, including consideration of career paths for ‘skills specialists’. ‘What are the conventions to equally reward the diverse roles that make science work?’

Finally, Professor David Shriberg (Indiana University) considered how social justice has been defined and applied in psychology, especially in educational psychology. How can we ensure the full and equal participation of all groups? Shriberg talked about the ‘goggles’ we wear when we examine practice, research and ethical issues in the field. Then there’s the skillset: the ability to be a ‘constructive irritant’ when it comes to injustice. ‘Stop, listen, observe, question assumptions, show cultural humility, own your need for growth.’

What role do educational psychologists in the UK think their profession should play in working towards social justice? Shriberg pointed to action, politics and policy, and ‘being brave’. This session was a fine example of how collaboration between professional organisations has the potential to shore up our foundations, in order to build real and lasting impact.

- More reports from the Society's Annual Conference will appear on the site in the coming weeks, and in the July edition.

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