This is the second part of a series on the dissemination of science. Read part 1 here!
Many of the products and services we consume are the result of rigorous science. This may be more noticeable in the health field – a new treatment, a new drug – but you may not realize that science is used to create and improve software, teaching practices, and other everyday products. One question that arises is: how do scientists get their work from the highly technical and perhaps non-interpretable “benchwork” science stage to something that can be disseminated and applied to the public?
The answer is “intermediates.” One example may be a physician who does not conduct their own research. As consumers, we expect that our treatment providers are up-to-date with new empirically supported treatments and methods. Thus, this physician should be familiar and practiced in new techniques and products that their patients require. The question is, how do they get proper information, tools, or training? Here, I conceptualize “intermediates” as those who work at the intersection of scientific research and general public consumption, individuals that teach and support those that work directly with consumers.
Natalie Rodriguez-Quintana is a 4th year graduate student in the Clinical program of Psychological and Brain Sciences. She works in Dr. Cara Lewis’ Training Research and Implementation in Psychology (TRIP) lab, which is focused on dissemination and implementation science (or D&I) specifically related to psychological treatment services. Rodriguez-Quintana was quick to clarify that it is not just a matter of dissemination; implementation research is incredibly important for ensuring that the knowledge being disseminated is accurately and consistently applied.
Implementation science, as she states, “is the process of identifying barriers and facilitators to the use of skills or services, which can then be used to help integrate those treatment skills or services into a particular setting.” Although research can provide evidence for new and innovative treatments, these experiments are often done in ideal settings with highly trained providers and unrealistic funding. The TRIP lab’s expertise in D&I and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was sought out to implement CBT skills in a youth residential setting. Specifically, Rodriguez-Quintana states that much of her work has surrounded identifying ways in which staff of various experience levels (i.e., youth care workers, case managers, administrators, social workers, etc.) can implement skills for the patients quickly and effectively.
One challenge, she mentions, is problem-solving how to adapt skills for the environment, including being sensitive to time, training, and resources. Despite these challenges, Rodriguez-Quintana stressed the importance of “translating our science into a language that others can understand”. Many of the studies that come out are not adapted for real-world settings; working at this D&I intersection helps Rodriguez-Quintana ensure that research on treatments and treatment practices will be implemented by providers and can be accessed by the public.
Although dissemination is particularly noticeable in treatment healthcare settings, another example may be a professor in need of a scientifically sound method or product to effectively train students or the public. Graduate student Craig Sanders’ work has applications to bridge this particular dissemination gap.
Sanders is a 5th year graduate student (and soon to be Postdoc at my alma mater Vanderbilt University – congrats!) working in the Categorization and Memory lab with IU Psychological and Brain Sciences Distinguished Professor Robert Nosofsky. The lab studies the way in which people learn categories (e.g., rocks, cells, skin lesions, galaxies, stars, and leaves) and psychologically represent these categories (e.g., what dimensions or characteristics do you keep in mind?). Currently, he is working on a project in conjunction with geologists to better understand how students identify and categorize rocks. As Sanders states, learning categories is imperative in a number of fields and, unfortunately the current methods employed in various fields are not effective for this purpose.
Sanders frames the problem he is working on practically: when teaching rock identification, a geology professor “cannot show students every possible type of granite, so which examples do you show them?” Based on the findings of their studies, Sanders foresees innovations such as computer programs that would allow professors to know which examples best represent the category and facilitate learning. This could make class time more efficient and effective. To better help with dissemination, Sanders has built a website that compiles the data from this project – you can look at rocks based on shininess, grain size, color, and a slew of other characteristics here. Sanders hopes that compiling this database and making it accessible will help interested parties begin to use and familiarize themselves with this database.
Similar to Rodriguez-Quintana, Sanders notes that dissemination is difficult when science is lost in translation. In the case of the Nosofsky Lab, early criticisms of this project stemmed from a “branding problem in psychology – the public has a narrow view of psychology and does not always see it as a science. As Sanders stated, “geologists did not believe that psychologists could help them teach because geologists are the experts on rock identification.” Sanders cautions that, unfortunately, the technicality of scientific work can make it difficult to directly translate and disseminate. Accordingly, this diminishes public interest or results in an inaccurate picture of psychology, which can further hinder dissemination.
What, then, is a psychological scientist or neuroscientist to do when translating scientific language is so core to dissemination? The next, and final, post of this series will reveal some ways in which scientists directly interact with the general public, highlighting the barriers and benefits of translating scientific material for the public via the media and direct interaction.
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Natalie Rodriguez-Quintana and Craig Sanders for sharing their experiences and expertise.