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Is Psychology a Player in Big Science?

The traditional boundaries between disciplines are breaking down, and the multidisciplinary research team has become the new standard.

By Robert T. Croyle, PhD

Over the past few years, I've grown increasingly concerned about Psychology. Before moving to NIH in 1998, my fifteen years as a faculty member in three different Psychology departments had led me to believe that Psychology was a vibrant and diverse discipline with tremendous relevance to the larger world of science. I continue to believe this, but I've also concluded that Psychology's potential as a player in "big science" is at risk and may not be fulfilled.

The Human Genome Project is often cited as an example of big science. Given its focus on technology development, bioinformatics, and a molecular level of analysis, it's not surprising that psychology was engaged in the HGP mostly at the edges. A handful of psychologists, for example, continue to pursue studies of how individuals and families cope with genetic risk information. Others have struggled to reinvent the methods of behavioral genetics in light of our ability to sequence genes and analyze masses of information about their expression.

But the Human Genome Project is only the tip of the iceberg. As the NIH Roadmap illustrates, it is not just genomic science that is becoming more transdisciplinary and more technology-intensive. The traditional boundaries between disciplines are breaking down, and the multidisciplinary research team has become the new standard. Leaders within the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and the pharmaceutical industry have been saying the same for some time. So have some psychologists. But as I travel around the country, visiting Psychology departments, Medical Schools, and Cancer Centers, the Psychology departments often look more like the crusty bastions of tradition than the incubators of innovation. The silos of individual's research programs and the field's subdisciplines are nearly as strong and competitive (i.e., non-collaborative) as they were a decade ago. The curriculum makes it impossible for a clinical student to enroll in an anthropology course. Deans encounter resistance from specialized faculty to the empowerment and funding of interdisciplinary programs. Graduate students whisper their interest in applied research conducted in real-world settings, hoping their advisor won't hear them.

Although they represent a small percentage of our community, the irony is that many psychologists around the country have and do participate in large-scale team science. The Women's Health Initiative is but one example of a major enterprise where psychologists have played a key role. Cohort studies have grown in number, size, and importance, as have community interventions and multi-site clinical trials. But the world of big science psychology is often invisible with the typical psychology department. Many psychologists become involved in big science intentionally or accidentally by migrating not toward, but away from psychology departments to work for private research contractors or to fill faculty positions in schools of public health or medicine. Programs in cognitive neuroscience, informatics, addiction studies and psychiatric epidemiology that are housed outside of psychology departments often attract the most creative risk-takers who are willing to trade the security of hard money for access to new technology, special populations, and large research infrastructures that allow scientists to utilize multiple levels of analysis.

So what are we to do? One important step is to reconnect the psychologists in psychology departments with colleagues who have built their research careers in other settings. The psychologists involved in big science need to share their experience and expertise more widely so that junior scientists acquire the management, grant-writing, and collaboration skills necessary to compete on a larger playing field. Applied researchers need to be informed by the latest developments in basic behavioral science, and basic behavioral scientists need to demonstrate more effectively the value of their work by informing themselves about and contributing directly to big science activities. Although grant-funded research centers are often perceived by psychology faculty merely as sources of support for their graduate students, their importance as venues for transdisciplinary research training is grossly underestimated.

As APA launches the PSY21 initiative, I encourage colleagues to reach beyond their programs, engage colleagues in the biomedical and population sciences, and read one of the many recent reports from the National Academy of Sciences on the future of behavioral and biomedical research.  The conceptual and methodological expertise of psychologists is needed now more than ever. As research funders increase their investments in larger, longer, and more complex studies of the interaction of genetic, biological, and social factors underlying emotional states, behavior and disease, we psychologists will have to emerge from the comfortable world of two by two experiments and hyperspecialized journals into the world of big science. Human welfare depends on it.