The next generation of Psychologists will lose

Luna Centifanti on the valuing of academic work, and plans at the University of Liverpool.

How does one measure the value of an academic psychologist? For a university, this is not a navel-gazing meditation; it’s a practical problem. The answer we choose has a major impact on the provision of education and training, and ultimately the next generation of psychologists. We need to get it right and we cannot just rely on narrow 'objective' metrics.

Recently, we lost a great psychologist: Dr Scott Lilienfeld. He made real-world contributions in busting popular myths about human behaviour. He interrogated the concept of psychopathy, discussed the psychological treatments that actually harm, lambasted pseudoscience, and was sceptical of neuroscience being able to answer complex questions about human behaviour. Despite all this, he did not win enormous grants. A purely metrics-based valuation would not have captured the value he brought. 

This might feel like an old discussion but it is still a pressing topic. The University of Liverpool is planning to cut 47 jobs based on grant income and a citation metric. Five psychologists have been identified. Important contributions are being completely ignored: for example teaching; collegiality; student experience; knowledge exchange. There will be huge losses to science and clinical practice if psychologists are hired, promoted, fired based on a narrow assessment of performance. 

The use of a narrow set of metrics fails to capture the value that teaching and mentoring has to students. Mentoring students benefits student experience and boosts both their academic and job opportunities. However, this takes time away from lecturers' ability to develop their own research. Many women and BAME individuals are also involved in decolonising the curriculum in psychology. This takes time. These equality, diversity, and inclusion strategic priorities dovetail with those of the wider discipline (i.e., British Psychological Society). Recently, within the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology programmes, Health Education England provided funding to improve diversity in the profession. If one fails to value these activities, this could be seen as an example of structural racism which prioritises a narrow area of excellence in higher education. 

Universities push staff to get big grants, but they should be doing the opposite. Psychologists should be rewarded for providing scientific knowledge while saving costs to the tax-payer (Chambers, 2019). Bidding for unneeded public money is wasteful and unethical. Some psychology research is cost-effective: important, impactful work can be done inexpensively. This kind of research should be recognised and incentivised. This includes psychological research which directly improves our health and wellbeing, but even basic science is important and can sometimes be done with openly available cohort data and without expensive equipment.

Universities often care about how many publications are produced, but we should instead look at their impact. Impact could be measured in many ways: policy impact, impact health interventions, and impact on 'what works'. Instead, many universities count how many times a published paper has been cited or mentioned within another scientific publication. Different areas of psychology show greater 'value' when using this citation metric. However, psychology is most useful when multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are encouraged. Pursuing high citations threatens the position of psychology as an interdisciplinary science with input from a variety of expertise – e.g., methodological, social, and clinical.

The profession is already dominated by certain voices, and this bias will continue if we focus on grants and citations, as University of Liverpool is doing. We need to reward psychologists who convert the tax-payers’ purse into excellent research, whether that is experimental 'blue sky' research or social psychology. Also, academic excellence needs to include the work of equality, diversity, and inclusion. Since women and ethnic minorities take up the decolonisation work and mentoring and coaching, the next generation of psychologists will lose. We can’t expect the field of psychology to be more inclusive if these individuals are pushed out.

Dr Luna Centifanti
Senior Lecturer / Senior Research Tutor DClinPsych
University of Liverpool

Editor's note: the University of Liverpool have responded to the online discussion here.

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This paper, combined with that referenced at the bottom of p 03 and the letter submitted by an anonymous “Early Career Researcher”, provoked a flood of lateral thoughts.


What can I usefully extract from the flood?


One is to issue a plea to authors to cease attributing our plight to “the pandemic” and rather to attribute it to government policy. Such a re-phrasal at least suggests a direction in which efforts to ameliorate the problems might be targeted.


A related plea is to stop attributing our problems to “neo liberalism”. They are more correctly attributable to “the brutal imposition of social Darwinism”. Asking “how and by whom” this has been accomplished again opens a window to possible directions of action.


Another is to examine the deep roots of the problematic processes in higher education to which the authors draw attention. In the UK, the pincer-like process involved in the destruction of the universities and control of funding were initiated (?) by the Thatcher government. It was they who, in the wake of the Rothschild (1982) report, initiated the contractor-contractor principle whereby the government sets the topics to researched (and largely the methods to be deployed) and calls for competitive tenders from researchers. But even more sinister were the changes in the terms of the contracts under which such research was to be conducted. Researchers were required not only to submit everything they might say to government for approval before saying it; they were also required to assign to the government the right to actually alter the actual statistical figures reported. While a few whistleblowers protested this process, most went (go) along with these demands because both their own livelihoods and those of their research assistants depend upon it. It was not as if the researchers did not have the power to resist these impositions. As Rothschild observed, modern societies simply cannot operate without it. Thus we were, in reality, in the same positon as their Czech counterparts to simply say “OK. In that case, we won’t do it”.


In parallel, the Thatcher government took over control of the Higher Education via the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 and this process has continued to the present day, perhaps finding its latest expression in the Bologna process.


But what are we about here? I was once asked to speak to the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals on “Managing Higher Education Without Losing Sight of its Purposes”. In the event it rapidly became clear that they were not only not interested in discussing its purposes; they were only interested in strategies to squeeze as much money per student out of the government.


Perhaps in connection with the preparation of that talk I once came across what I considered to be a useful discussion of the role of the universities. Unfortunately, I have lost track of it.


However, here is a summary (from memory) of its conclusions. Institutions of Higher Education could usefully be reformed to effectively perform the following functions:


  1. To advance understanding and to involve students as apprentices in that process.
  2. To enable anyone at any stage in their lives to gain necessary knowledge and skills.
  3. To run short specialist courses sharing the latest information emerging from the research community.
  4. To enable anyone, at any time in their lives, to pursue their interests.
  5. To provide a forum for those interested in ideas to meet and discuss.


This does not look like the kind of institution we are used to.


Unfortunately, the exhortation to take these goals seriously is entirely unrealistic because it ignores the sociological functions of the “educational” system.


These goals are best captured by the notion of “Warehousing” youth. In the absence of meaningful employment opportunities, youth is to be herded into institutions where they will be occupied in hierarchically organised programmes of work in which they will be trained in the knowledge and skills required to perform these non-existent jobs. This senseless work conveniently creates jobs for endless teachers, researchers, publishers and others. The “researchers” occupy themselves producing mountains of DRIP (Data Rich, Information Poor) non replicable, or otherwise misleading, reports each citing the maximum number of similar “studies”.


How to intervene in such a structurally embedded system requires much more sophisticated interventions than simply shouting at HEI managers or governments. Generating such arrangements is something that psychologists, and the BPS in particular, should be concerned with.


I have elsewhere expressed concern with the BPS’s apparent acceptance of the role assigned to them by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Psychology (APPG).


But let me end by saying something else.


The Education Section last year devoted a whole issue (vol 44 no 1) of the Psychology of Education Review to an Open Dialogue around issues associated with the abuse of “science”, logic, and authority in “education” which I raised in a Starter Paper. Now consider the implications of the following: Not one of the (very interesting) comments offered by the commentators made reference to my list of things that might be done to remedy the situation.