Cover story

Global Collaborations Take Center Stage at NAS Briefing

The International Collaborations in Behavioral and Social Science was the focus of discussion in late January at a public briefing held at the National Academy of Sciences to launch the volume.

By Amena Hassan

by Amena Hassan, APA Office of International Affairs

A new report, The International Collaborations in Behavioral and Social Science was the focus of discussion in late January at a public briefing held at the National Academy of Sciences to launch the volume. The presentation, led by Kathie Bailey Mathie, director of the Academy’s Board on International Science Organizations (BISO), included a discussion panel that described the objectives behind of the report and the workshop that preceded it. The panel, including Suzanne Bennett-Johnson, chair of the US National Committee for Psychology, and committee members Judith Torney Purta and Merry Bullock helped set the stage for a lively audience discussion of the opportunities and challenges of international research.

Some of the subjects brought up during the briefing included mechanisms for facilitating psychologists to work with each other on the same issues, even from different backgrounds; navigating through challenges related to legal, and political situations in other nations; adapting ethical practices to be responsive to cultural differences, and needed changes to attract a younger generation of psychologists to doing more international research while helping them overcome funding and other obstacles in the process. The committee expressed the hope that, although this report was put together from an American perspective, it would raise awareness of international issues more broadly and serve as a catalyst both in the US and globally,

As Dr. Johnson noted, it is young people who are sometimes dissuaded from doing research abroad because the perception exists that this path can present academic impediments. “Mentors tell them they won’t get their thesis done because international research takes too long and presents many obstacles. This can be a real problem and this report was written to motivate American psychologists to think in broader terms,” she said.

“We know the opportunities are out there. But what we hear at the APA is that the number of psychologists who take advantage of existing mechanisms is low. We hope that this volume will serve as a tool to increase interest and activity,” said Dr. Bullock. “This information needs broad dissemination through our communities.”

Cross-cultural issues

Other members of the USNC/Psychology committee contributed their perspective to the discussion. Dr. Oscar Barbarin touched upon some of the contradictions faced by international researchers. “In a culture it is so difficult to know what the problems are until you stumble upon them,” he stated. “In a research project on child soldiers in Angola western models were applied and counselors were brought in to work with kids at the individual level, when really what they needed was community reconciliation. The main issue was reintegration into the community. It wasn’t until the researchers experienced the failure of these models that they realized where they went wrong.”

Dr. Torney-Purta recommended more open ended exploration before starting research and interviewing staff and professionals to get a better idea of a specific work setting.  She also stressed the importance of two-way collaboration. “It simply reinforces the fact that you can’t parachute in and then fly again with all your data,” she elaborated. "The benefits of the research must be there for all collaborators."

The panel also stressed that international research means stretching disciplinary boundaries. “Sometimes interdisciplinary work becomes a lot more complex. A social worker in Hong Kong may be the person who should be studying mental health there and not a psychologist. These are all things that should be taken into account, ” added Dr. Torney-Purta. Panelists were also asked about their opinions on what determined metrics of success. “A real measure of success is that international collaborations are truly collaborative. We should think of it as a truly reciprocal relationship where we both think and act,” said Dr. Bullock.

“My metric for success is seeing how people are creating collaborations,” said Dr. Johnson. She went on to give an example of how a psychologist from another site during a research project wanted to add to an existing protocol and how that resulted in an overall success for the project as a whole. “It’s very interesting how some of these same phenomena occur across disciplines as well as across countries,” she added.

“Is this as far as we can go? No,” stated Katie Bailey Mathie in response to another question from the audience. “There are USNC committees that have experienced challenges in each of their respective fields, be it astronomy or physics or soil science. I think it would be interesting to take it up a level and look at other disciplines to map the set of common challenges and solutions.”

The International Union for Psychological Science (IUPsyS) serves to build global interaction among research communities and promote advances in psychological science and technology at the international level. The U.S. National Committee (USNC) for IUPsyS, which is partially funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, represents the interests of the U.S. psychological science community to the international community. To learn more, visit: http://www7.nationalacademies.org/usnc-iupsys/1About_USNC_IUPsyS.html.