Executive Director’s Column

Slow Going


By Steven Breckler, PhD

steven-brecklerMy thinking about the nature of research in psychology is heavily influenced by Donald Stokes’ 1997 book Pasteur’s Quadrant. Stokes proposed that the bipolar conceptualization of basic to applied research represents a false dimension, and that science is better understood by separating two distinct goals: the quest for fundamental understanding and the need for practical application. Crossing these two goals (most simply as a 2 x 2 table) suggests that research can be simultaneously driven by basic and applied concerns. The work of Louis Pasteur best epitomizes the intersection of basic and applied research, hence the term Pasteur’s quadrant.

The beauty and power of psychological science is that it represents the quintessential occupant of Pasteur's quadrant. So much of what we do is motivated by both the quest for fundamental understanding and the need to solve practical problems. This is not to say that psychology is always about this intersection. Indeed, many important problems for psychology are driven solely by basic knowledge goals. In other cases, psychology is like engineering in its quest to solve problems without concern for underlying mechanisms. Yet, in contrast to most other fields of science (physics, chemistry, biology, math), psychology is far more grounded in Pasteur's quadrant than in any other.

It is against this backdrop that two recent editorials caught my attention. One is by Sharon Begley, the science editor at Newsweek. Writing in the June 15, 2009 issue, Begley suggested that the structure of academia works against the rapid discovery of cures and slows the translation of research into practice. Advancement and promotion in academe places a premium on publishing basic research in highly ranked journals. Practical applications seem less valued, and contribute less to career-oriented development of faculty. If the private sector senses low profit potential, then nobody is left to develop those practical applications.

Writing in the June 29, 2009 issue of the New York Times, Gina Kolata suggests that the grant system (especially at NIH) discourages major breakthroughs. The idea is that small, modest projects tend to win funding because they are far less risky than the ones designed to produce major breakthroughs. High risk projects have a low likelihood of success; low risk projects have a greater likelihood of success. A conservative grant system is biased toward investing in low-risk projects with small payoffs than in high-risk projects with high payoffs. Somehow, that feels safer. Yet, in the end, the system produces lots of incremental science and too-few major cures.

These commentaries are focused mainly on biomedical research funded by NIH. Some of psychology clearly falls within that domain. Yet, I wonder if the general points also apply to other areas of research in psychology. Our discipline offers the potential to help solve many of the greatest challenges of society - climate change, poverty, violence, education, health disparities, and many others. Yet our most highly ranked journals and desired sources of funding place the greatest premium on small, incremental, basic research projects.

In the end, psychological science finds itself in Bohr's quadrant rather than Pasteur's, where the focus is on developing fundamental knowledge without regard for practical application. We are in good company, of course, because the same forces of academe and funding agencies apply to every other field of science too. The shame, however, is that progress toward solving big problems is slow. Far slower than it needs to be, and far slower than psychology is capable of moving.