Funding good questions asked rigorously

Ella Rhodes reports on Sir Mark Walport's keynote at the Annual Conference.

The face of the world is changing, and the face of research must change alongside it. Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, gave an overview of some of the most pressing challenges currently faced by scientists. With climate breakdown, our ageing populations, the rise in populism and sudden doubting of enlightenment values, science is more important than ever. ‘We need to defend the rigour of science,’ Sir Walport said. ‘It is the most powerful way of finding things out that we have. We need to explain it, we need to communicate with the public as we have never done before.’ 

Walport said investing in people was particularly important – including good training in research and better career advice. He also suggested tracking the career trajectories of researchers after postdoctoral positions. While some remain in their field others take their skills in questioning the world into other areas. Walport said he is often asked why more scientists aren’t MPs. His reply: ‘They stood for election, scientists didn’t.’

The UKRI, which comprises seven research councils, was brought together after a review on research councils by Paul Nurse.Many of the councils support psychology research and Walport said social science can be useful in creating a prosperous economy, more effective public services and a more sustainable and healthy society. However, he added, good research is about asking good questions. ‘Research that doesn’t consider big questions the taxpayer is asking is missing a trick… the social sciences do have to work with the third sector, government and business.’ 

One way to do this is to look at government department lists of ARIs (areas of research interest). Many of the items on the lists from various government departments are asking questions which psychologists are primed to help answer. Walport gave the example of the Department for Work and Pensions seeking answers on the causes and consequences of family breakdown. 

Psychology, he said, while pervasive and multidisciplinary, can get caught up in ‘extremely uninteresting debates’ in areas such as qualitative vs quantitative approaches, when both can be done well or badly. ‘We’ll fund science as long as it’s asking good questions in a rigorous way.’  

Another important consideration when tackling issues which affect policy is to view the world through as many other people’s lenses as possible. For example, while most people in the UK are concerned about climate change research, tackling the issue isn’t so simple. Walport pointed to the work of psychologists including Karen Parkhill and Nick Pidgeon, and  their identification of the ‘energy trilemma’ – while 74 per cent of people were very or fairly concerned about climate change, and 80 per cent said we should reduce fossil fuel use, 82 per cent are concerned about becoming reliable on energy from other countries and 83 per cent are worried electricity and gas will become unaffordable in the next two decades. Policy decisions are viewed in this way: they are difficult and require trade-offs in one or more of those areas. 

However, psychology has had policy impact. Walport gave John Drury’s work on crowd behaviour and Louise Arsenault’s research on inequality as prime examples. It is important to remember that policy makers are less concerned with single studies: they care more about what a body of research can conclude. 

Reproducibility, obviously of concern in the field, is more about incompetence than wickedness, Walport said. ‘There is some wickedness, but a much more systemic problem is people not doing research well enough.’ Underpowered and poorly designed studies, various issues with both overly small and extremely large sample sizes, publication bias and misaligned incentives, a lack of publication of null findings… all these are issues which need attention. ‘This is a case of medicine for everyone.’ Employers should ensure statistics education is up to scratch, and an institution should encourage quality in research, continued professional development and HR support. Funders should embrace rigorous peer review, proper funding, and ‘intelligent transparency’: ‘data without metadata isn’t useful’. As Walport pointed out, in psychology we know about cognitive bias and understand the allure of wanting to believe one’s own hypothesis. Quoting Richard Feynman, he added: ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’ 

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