Interview: From 'year Dot' to the future
The Society’s new President (see p.435), Dorothy Miell, outlines some priorities for her term and beyond. Our Editor, Jon Sutton, poses the questions
To what extent does the President pilot the ship?
Well, you have to have some sort of direction setting, but it’s not a personal agenda – you’re doing it as Chair of the Board of Trustees, not as somebody who is setting out their own personal stall. I don’t think you should be pushing a particular individual position, you’re helping set and steer a collective direction. This can only be taken forward by the work of the whole Society – with the Chief Executive responsible for the operationalisation and management of that direction, working with staff of the Society, and the members contributing via their work on the Boards and in the various member networks.
And what is your collective direction?
During my term, I think the most important thing will be agreeing on then starting to work to the new Strategic Plan. That is something I was really bothered about getting done… it can have a lasting influence by helping the Society decide on priorities and then deliver them. When the Trustees consulted with the membership and staff as we developed the plan, the sort of issues they were raising about the Society were very similar to the ones we’d identified. The plan will help us focus on these agreed areas and avoid getting overloaded or indeed sidetracked by other things that are less clearly our main concerns.
The plan lays out broadly three priority areas: promoting the advancement of the knowledge base and practice; making psychology more visible in both policy making and public discourse; and improving services to members, which will not only support our existing members but also hopefully grow the membership further.
What could the Society be better at?
We could be better at communicating what the membership fee goes towards, what we actually do. I was struck when I was chairing the Psychology Education Board, we had lots of prizes, awards and grants but not enough people seemed to know about them. And of course there are many different reasons why people choose to be members, and we may all want somewhat different things from the Society, so what we communicate needs to speak to as much of that range as possible. Independent clinicians or consultants, employed practitioners, undergraduate students, academics, all need to hear how the Society is working for them.
Is the membership in good health?
Psychology is one of the most popular A-levels, and it’s still one of the most popular degrees at university, yet over the last few years our membership has not been growing in line with this overall growth in interest. That means there are more and more people that are getting close to psychology but not yet seeing the benefits of membership of the BPS. I’m impressed with the work being done by staff and members with schoolchildren and students to explain more about the Society, and so hopefully this will soon start to turn round. We’ve also got people all over the world interested in associating and working more closely with UK psychology, so it’s good to see the new developments in the Society to make more connections internationally.
That need to make connections presumably relates to other disciplines as well.Yes. One of the things I see as an academic is that we are blurring the edges of the discipline, and developing more of an understanding of the benefits of multi- and interdisciplinarity in addressing the questions that concern society. I think it’s really important that we find ways to help us to work even more effectively with colleagues in other disciplines. And this applies to practice as well as academia – working in multidisciplinary teams with patients and clients is common, but perhaps we could do more in training and CPD to teach how to work in such teams? I’m particularly interested in developing relationships with similar, adjacent subject areas, learned societies and professional bodies and the strategic plan talks about building such collaborations. Every funding body, every policy body talks about the benefits of interdisciplinarity, and I’m pleased that we are planning to build really strong connections with others, both in the UK and internationally.
That would presumably go some way towards countering a common charge levelled at the Society, that we are not visible enough.
In terms of how we improve the public visibility of the subject and the Society, the Strategic Plan proposes increasing the number of large scale, public-facing events. We’ve had some major successes with some of these already such as our exhibits at the Big Bang Young Scientists and Engineers fair and the Cheltenham Science Festival. Also, there’s a new proposal from Research Board for a Festival of Psychology in 2019 that will be an important international event. I’d also like to encourage us to develop support for ‘citizen scientists’, using apps and other technologies to help interested members of the public to get more involved with understanding psychology – and indeed contributing to its development in accessible and fun ways, for example by ‘crowdsourcing’ data on everyday behaviour.
Can you give me an example?
The app ‘Mappiness’ (www.mappiness.org.uk) is fantastic. It was put together by academics in geography and environmental science who were interested in how people’s feelings are affected by features of their current environment – things like air pollution, noise and green spaces. The app alerts you a number of times a day, and when you get the alert you key in where you are, what you’re doing, and how you feel on a number of dimensions. It only takes a minute or two to do, and you then get access to your own data so you can start to chart out where and when you’ve been at your happiest. It’s really interesting for the person concerned but at the same time, it’s developing a database for the academics who are running it which is built up from people’s ratings and sound samples from all over the world.
This isn’t a psychology example I know, and I’m aware of many colleagues in psychology who are doing similarly excellent activities, but there’s more to be done here I think and the Society could help with growing this strand of work. However, planning such events and initiatives obviously takes longer than the one year any President serves, so change can’t be achieved quickly. Working on the strategic plan allows us all to think about what can be done in five years rather than one, and gives a broader framework for the specific ideas any one President may have.
Is there perhaps a more direct approach required when it comes to getting ourselves heard?We should have a far greater voice. What we could do more is have a small group of people who can be ‘The Voice’ of psychology and be more visible in public and policy spheres, who can ensure that our shared knowledge base of psychology and the value of its practice are being aired appropriately and often. What they say doesn’t need to surface the nuances of difference between all the branches of our discipline. We have to reassure our members that just because we may not all agree with every aspect of what that spokesperson has said, doesn’t mean to say that they aren’t doing a good service for psychology. Most people who are looking to psychology for some sort of insight are not looking for all those nuances, they are asking how they would get something of use from psychology, and where might they go to find out more. The BPS can communicate these broad-brush messages, and then point to where other, more detailed, resources are available.
How do the various member networks of the Society – Divisions, Sections, Branches – fit into this?
I think we risk having an overcomplicated structure and duplicated set of groups, not all of which have a clear link to each other or to the overall goals of the Society. We perhaps need to improve the communication between the different networks and help them work together on matters of concern rather than setting up yet further new networks and subgroups. We also need to address how best to finance the various activities we agree as our priorities in the strategic plan, ensuring that networks have appropriate access to necessary funding and using it effectively in order to support the things we agree are important.
What other issues are close to your heart?
I think it’s important we do more on equality issues. Psychology departments in universities with Athena SWAN recognition can apply for their own awards; yet approximately 60 departments in qualifying universities have not yet achieved this – why not? We’re a subject that attracts a far higher proportion of women students, and always has done, even at the postgraduate and professional training stages, yet you look round at those in senior roles both in academia and practice and the picture is very different. Through working with the Association of Heads of Psychology Departments, the Society could be providing a network of people who can help departments get that recognition within the Charter and start to improve the career prospects of women psychologists.
And prospects for psychologists in general?
We’re already working well with departments, for example to collect and share data on the long-term destinations of their graduates so that we can all learn more about how a psychology degree can be of use in later employment – information that’s useful across the board. The new partnership approach to accreditation of degrees is another success story I think – the Society is showing that it can work really positively with departments to improve psychology teaching and develop the curriculum. And whilst the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group (PsyPAG), funded by the Society’s Research Board, has done fantastic work to help postgraduates support each other through their studies, perhaps there’s an opportunity to do more for postdocs and newly qualified practitioners as they progress into the early parts of their careers?
What was your own early career like?
My own PhD research, with Professor Steve Duck at Lancaster, was on communication in developing relationships, and I have continued to focus on aspects of relationships and communication since. This has involved working in many different contexts – in primary and secondary schools looking at young children’s collaborations in their science, creative writing and music classes; interviewing women about their difficult relationship histories and experience of mothering; working with musicians, theatre directors, gallery directors and computer scientists to study how they collaborate to produce multi-media exhibitions and performances; and interviewing musicians about their changing sense of musical identity. I’m particularly interested in how people from different disciplines work productively together in developing their practice, and in how we might teach students, trainees and professionals in various fields to collaborate more effectively.
After Lancaster I enjoyed many years at the Open University: their approach to opening up knowledge and learning through diverse and high quality materials was also very influential for me. Since 2010 I’ve been Vice Principal and Head of the College of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Edinburgh. The very international nature of the University and the close relationships we have with many outside agencies and disciplines have all further influenced my thinking about what the opportunities are for psychology.
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