Executive Director's Column

Psychology and the Grid

Over the past five to ten years, a new computing technology has emerged.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Psychology is not generally regarded as a technology-intensive scientific discipline. Our research methods are as sophisticated as science allows, but the technology we employ tends to be relatively basic. Very often, a pencil and piece of paper will suffice. Of course, small computers are ubiquitous in psychological research, but this hardly qualifies as leading edge technology.

Some sub-areas of the field do rely on more advanced technology. The revolution in cognitive science depends on powerful computers and magnetic resonance imaging. The biologically-inspired areas of psychology take full advantage of new biomedical technology. And the basic quantitative methods of psychology rely on advanced computing capabilities, both on the hardware and software sides.

Over the past five to ten years, a new computing technology has emerged. Grid computing – sometimes called cloud computing – is based on the sharing of computing and data resources across the internet. By harnessing distributed resources, it is possible to achieve enormous degrees of computational power, share data, and bring together collaborations that would otherwise be very difficult to arrange.

The major funding agencies are investing heavily in grid computing projects. Much of the basic infrastructure is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Many of the applications relevant for psychology and health-related fields are being supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

One example is the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC). As described on its website, the SCEC is:

a community of over 600 scientists, students, and others at over 60 institutions worldwide, headquartered at the University of Southern California. SCEC is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey to develop a comprehensive understanding of earthquakes in Southern California and elsewhere, and to communicate useful knowledge for reducing earthquake risk.
This is big science, involving widely distributed but shared resources, many institutions, and even more scientists.

In the health related area, a good example is the Biomedical Informatics Research Network (BIRN). This Grid infrastructure, supported heavily by NIH, creates a network of collaborators who share data and research tools in pursuit of common interests.

It is harder to find examples of this kind of research infrastructure in which psychology plays a central role. Perhaps the best example is the Social Informatics Data Grid (SIDGrid). Supported by NSF, and based at Argonne National Laboratory, University of Chicago, and University of Illinois at Chicago, the SIDGrid project, as described on its web site:

enables researchers to collect real-time multimodal behavior at multiple time scales. Multimedia data (voice, video, images, text, numerical) is stored in a distributed data warehouse that employs Web and Grid services to support data storage, access, exploration, annotation, integration, analysis, and mining of individual and combined data sets.

Perhaps most disappointing, however, is the missed opportunity for psychology to become better integrated within and supported by relevant Grid projects. One example is the cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG). This network connects the cancer research community – researchers, physicians, and patients. It is used to collect, analyze, and share data. It represents a significant and important advancement for cancer research. Psychology should be a central player.

So why is this latest generation of computing technology not catching on in psychology? Perhaps we don’t need it, except in special cases where the opportunity is already being exploited. If the research problems of psychology do not require this kind of technology, then it makes no sense to pursue it.

Perhaps psychologists are not quite ready to plug into this kind of technology, preferring to stick with the familiar technology on which most of the discipline has always been based. I suspect this is a large part of it. The research culture of psychology does not encourage sharing of resources (especially data), and cross-institutional collaboration is less common than in many other fields. The culture of Grid computing may be too foreign for psychology.

I think the main reason, however, is that the visionaries of the major federal funding institutions fail to appreciate the need to integrate the behavioral sciences within these efforts. They fail to realize how important the contributions of psychology could be, if only properly included. And they do not understand how the scientific disciplines of social and behavioral science would themselves benefit from such inclusion.

If institutions such as NSF and NIH are serious in putting Grid computing to work in solving the grand challenges of society, they should get serious about connecting psychology to the Grid.