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Teaming up to improve the Psychology PhD

by David Troy @DavidTroy79 and Jim Lumsden @jl9937

Human beings are social creatures; we evolved to work together. Our education system is built around this fact; and throughout school and university we encourage students to team up to solve problems, discuss concepts and answer questions. At the same time, as science advances into the 21st century, we find ourselves trying to answer increasingly difficult questions. These new problems cannot be effectively addressed by one person working alone, and academia and industry are increasingly embracing ‘Team Science’, with many articles ssbeing authored by large groups of individuals with a range of specialisms. As experts in disparate fields, these scientists combine their strengths to triangulate evidence and build robust theories. However, in our experience, the field of experimental psychology has yet to adapt to this model of working, and we suspect this has its root at the very beginning of a psychologist’s career: the solo nature of the psychology PhD. This final stage of training to be a scientist consists of a 3-4 year long solo project which, by its very nature, does not foster close collaboration between researchers. A PhD is a course in independent working – it might teach determination, motivation and self-confidence, but it does not teach teamwork. We believe this needs to change.

A new model:

We would like to see a new model of PhD, based on the kind of team environment found in the software development world. Under this model, a research group would be subdivided into several small teams of scientists, with perhaps 3 or 4 PhD students and a postdoc working very closely together. The group would be located in the same office and tackle research questions collaboratively. Overall supervision would come from multiple senior academics, but the post-doc would act as team-leader on a day-to-day basis. Other stakeholders such as clinicians, policy makers and industry-partners may be invited to work within the group to improve the translatability and relevance of the research.

The main purpose of a team-PhD would be to work towards publishable projects much like a conventional company works towards product release deassssdlines or software updates. However, this increased emphasis on publications should not come at the cost of rigour and integrity with the primary focus remaining the adequate training of the candidate in scientific best practice during their PhD. By pooling resources and effort, such a team would be able to tackle the questions addressed by a traditional PhD thesis in less time. Joint 1st authorships would be common, with each team member’s contribution made explicit, rather than recognised implicitly via authorship order. A common theme of research chosen by team members (with direction from the post-doc team leader and supervisors) would be apparent from the team’s output over several years, but the studies and directions chosen should not need to be as cohesive as a traditional PhD. Given that a PhD is supposed to be training there is currently far too much focus on producing a coherent output (the “narrative arc”), rather than developing essential skills (not intending to diminish the important skill of clear, concise scientific writing). We are scientists, not novelists, and should be free to move around various fields to where our skills are needed most.

Let’s imagine a typical working day: You’re busy handling the response letter to the reviewers of your team’s latest paper. Every now and again you turn around to ask your teammates “How should we handle this question? Should we run some extra analysis?”. Your colleague beside you is writing the protocol for your group’s next project. She’s writing in Google Docs, so any member of the team can chip in whenever they want to. The experiment is designed collaboratively, and you will collect the data together. When the data are in, two team members handle the analysis, while the others write the introduction and methods. The team leader allocates different roles on each project, so you’re always learning new skills, but never far from help. Each day starts with a 10-minute meeting, discussing the plan for the day and flagging up any new papers that people have read and any good ideas that have arisen in the last 24 hours.

We believe that working together in a small group would bring many benefits: individuals can read papers and report back summarised findings, they can discuss theories, bounce ideas off each other, cross-check analysis and spot mistakes. Together they can run larger samples, read more widely, attempt more complex analyses, discuss more deeply, and so on. This sort of introspection and group effort leads to rigour, improved quality control, and ultimately higher throughput. Working in a team in this way would be motivating, with more camaraderie and positive peer-pressure, compared to the current PhD experience. Expertise would be shared between team members with the end result being a team of researchers competent in essential scientific skills (e.g., programming, statistics, study design, etc.). A team-PhD would also help to combat the isolation so many postgraduate students feel.

In order to accommodate this change to the nature of the PhD, the existing application process, whereby the candidate prepares a research proposal describing their own project, would need to be replaced with a more general application in which the applicant describes their research skills, areas of interest and motivations for long-term study. Successful applicants would be added to the research team most in need of their skillset: if a team is already strong in statistical methods then perhaps a psychologist could add a new perspective, for example.

A change in the PhD structure would also require a change to the assessment process. It is often said that PhD theses ends up in university libraries, never to be read again. Given that PhDs are often publically funded, the time spent altering a publication to fit the narrative arc of a thesis would be better spent dedicated to science that can have tangible impact. University of Bristol, alongside other universities, offers an alternative, if rarely used, PhD by published work. In this format candidates do not submit a thesis, but rather must publish a series of “coherent” works, alongside a commentary on the general direction of their research, its scope and aims. Currently, it takes ~10 years to amass enough publications to qualify for this route; however, it is plausible to alter this to the timeframe of a normal PhD. This format of PhD is more likely to produce high quality scientific output, published in academic journals, rather than rotting on a library shelf. Additionally, a PhD-by-publication still requires an oral examination. This exam would be used to ensure that team-PhD candidates are still capable, independent scientists with a sound understanding of their field, even though the bulk of their research was conducted as part of a team.

The teaming up of researchers with different competencies working on publications may have unintended consequences. It may be difficult to find one person to adequately review such work as is currently the case in neurogenetics for example. A possible remedy would be to restructure the review process to include teams of reviewers, where each member of the team specialises in addressing one of the specialisms described in the paper.ssssssssss

So, how can we move from solo training to team-based training? We suggest it is possible to trial the addition of team science to the PhD process by mandating that new PhD candidates work in a team, as part of their 1st year of study. In recent years, the 1+3 year PhD has become more common, whereby candidates carry out solo mini-projects in their 1st year to acquire experience and training in disparate fields. This could be altered to incorporate close teamwork in the execution of these mini-projects. This would provide an opportunity to examine the everyday benefits and challenges of this new mode of working. This way, students would not be overly disadvantaged when emerging from their PhD into a world of academia still concentrated around the principal investigator model, as the majority of their training would still be focused on generating and implementing their own ideas and developing their own “brand” or intellectual identity as a scientist.

Conclusion

The current model of attaining a PhD in psychology is too focused on solo work. We argue that introducing a more collaborative and cohesive framework to the PhD would aid in the development of research skills and produce more well-rounded PhD graduates equipped to tackle complex research questions. We hope this blog post will spark debate about the suitability of current training for psychological research and generate further ideas on how it can be improved to produce researchers with the skillset necessary for science in the 21st century.

 

Photo credits:

  1. http://dk.hjernekraft.org/turnering/279/lillestrom/lag.aspx?id=5602
  2. https://fbs.admin.utah.edu/research-corner/2015/07/28/enhancing-the-effectiveness-of-team-science/
  3. http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/on-incomprehensibility-of-much.html

Screening of A Royal Hangover: TARG goes to the movies

By David Troy @DavidTroy79 

I recently hosted a documentary screening of ‘A Royal Hangover’ on behalf of the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group at the University of Bristol. The film documents anecdotes from all facets of the drinking culturpic1e in the UK, from politicians to police, medical specialists to charities, the church and scientists, and addicts and celebrities, with high profile personalities such as Russell Brand and controversial figures such as sacked Government Drugs Advisor Professor David Nutt. The director Arthur Cauty kindly agreed to take part in a question and answer session after the film to discuss his experience making the film and debate the issues raised in the film.

The film begins with Arthur talking about his own relationship with alcohol (or his lack of one).  He preferred to shoot silly films, play music or wrestle than go out drinking with his friends. The film deals with the history of alcohol starting off in the 16th and 17th century when it was safer to drink beer than water. Even babies were given what was called “small beer for small people”. In the early 18th century, gin became the drink of choice and reached epidemic levels, famously depicted in William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’. pic2Gin was unregulated and sold not just in public houses but in general stores and on the street. Moving on to the 20th century, Lloyd George recognised the danger of alcohol to the war effort in World War 1, and was quoted as saying that “we are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink”. Around this time, restrictions on the sale of alcohol were introduced by government. During World War 2, beer was seen as important to morale and a steady supply of it was seen as important to the war effort. Since then, we have seen a steady increase in consumption levels through the ‘hooligan/lager lout’ phenomenon of the 1980’s and the binge drinking of the 1990’s and the early 2000’s. Consumption levels have been falling slightly since the mid 2000’s but there are still 10 million people drinking above the government’s recommended level.

During the film, Arthur investigates how different societies treat alcohol. French and American drinkers describe a more reserved and responsible attitude to alcohol. This is somewhat contradicted by 2010 data in a recent report by the World Health Organisation which reports that French people over the age of 15 on average consume 12.2 litres of pure alcohol a year compared to Britons at 11.6 and Americans at 9.2 litres respectively. The drinking culture of France and the United States is certainly different to that of the UK. The French consume more wine, less beer, and tend to drink alcohol whilst eating food. The US (outside of ‘Spring Break’ culture) is more disapproving of public intoxication. However, neither society should be held up as a gold standard when it comes to alcohol use.

The film talks about the enormous cost of alcohol to England; approximately £21 billion annually in healthcare (£3.5 billion), crime (£11 billion) and lost productivity (£7.3 billion) costs. These are the best data available, but costs of this nature are difficult to calculate. Arthur talked to professionals on the front line – he interviewed a GP who said that a huge proportion of her time is devoted to patients with alcohol problems and their families. She has to treat the “social and psychological wreck” that comes when one family member has an alcohol addiction. A crime commissioner from Devon and Cornwall police states that 50% of violence is alcohol-related in his area.

The film attempts to understand the reasons why alcohol use is at current levels, and offers some possible solutions. Alcohol is twice as affordable now as in the 1980’s and is more freely available than ever. This needs to be curtailed. Evidence suggests that alcoholic beverages were 61% more affordable per person in 2012 than in 1980, and the current number of licensed premises in England and Wales is at the highest level repic3corded in over 100 years. Licensed premises with off sales only alcohol licences have also reached a record high, more than doubling in number compared with 50 years ago. The evidence shows that price increases and restrictions on availability are successful in reducing alcohol consumption. More alcohol education in schools was highlighted as being necessary. The evidence suggests that alcohol education in schools can have some positive impact on knowledge and attitudes. Overall, though, school-based interventions have been found to have small or no effects on risky alcohol behaviours in the short-term, and there is no consistent evidence of longer-term impact. Alcohol education in schools should be part of the picture but other areas may prove more fruitful. The film suggests that parental and peer attitudes towards alcohol affect drinking norms, and these attitudes need to change. In multiple surveys, it has been found that the behaviour of friends and family is the most common influential factor in determining how likely and how often a young person will drink alcohol. Alcohol marketing was cited as a problem and it needs to regulated more stringently. Alcohol marketing increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol and increases the amount used by established drinkers, according to a report commissioned by the EU. The exposure of children to alcohol marketing is of current concern. A recent survey showed that primary school aged children as young as 10 years old are more familiar with beer brands, than leading brands of biscuits, crisps and ice-cream.

David Nutt discussed research he conducted with colleagues, which assessed the relative harms of 20 drugs, including both harms to the individual and to others. They found that alcohol was the most harmful drug overall. Professor Nutt also covered the circumstances surrounding his sacking as government’s chief drug advisor; he claimed that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol, which led to his dismissal. This highlights the inherent tension between politics and science. Evidence can diverge from government policy and popular opinion, and scientists can lose their positions when reporting evidence that is politically unpopular. In my view, the reluctance of governments to implement evidence-based alcohol policies is frustrating; minimum unit pricing (MUP) being the latest example. Despite good evidence supporting how MUP can reduce alcohol-related harms, lobbying by the alcohol industry has halted its progress.

The film deals with the human cost of alcohol misuse, with personal stories of addiction permeating the film. Carrie Armstrong (who writes a blog discussing her battle with alcohol addiction), as well as Persia Lawson and Joey Rayner (who write a lifestyle blog ‘Addictive Daughter’), discussed the havoc alcohol caused in their lives, and explained how young men and women come to them for help with their own alcohol dependencies. Russell Brand talked about his own alcohol addiction during the film. He contends that his drug and alcohol use was medicinal and thinks that alcohol and drug addicts “have a spiritual craving, a yearning and we don’t the language, we don’t have the code to express that in our society”. Arthur interviewed Chip Somers of Focus 12, who talked about the low levels of funding to treat alcohol addiction. Only a small minority (approximately seven per cent) of the 1.6 million alcohol dependants in the UK can get access to treatment compared to two-thirds of addicts of other drugs.

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Arthur recorded over 100 hours of footage of drinkers on nights out during the course of filming. He described it as follows: “As the sun goes down, society fades away and what emerges from the shadows is a monster of low inhibition, aggression and casual chaos”. He sums it up as us “going to war on ourselves. On one side is the police, the emergency services, the council and various groups of volunteers and on the other side you’ve got everybody else”. He was assaulted three times and witnessed multiple scenes of violence close up. His bravery is admirable – there were many scenes I found difficult to watch. The scenes of senseless violence were horrible to look at, as were the images of individuals who were so intoxicated as to be helpless and in need of medical attention.

The Q&A after the screening was quite illuminating. Arthur spoke about the reception the film has been receiving at home and abroad. The reception has been great in the United States, where the film has had successful showings at film festivals. The interest in the UK has been a little disappointing, however, which Arthur puts down to the reluctance of society at large to acknowledge our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. Nevertheless, there has been positive feedback from viewers of the film. Many people have contacted Arthur to tell him how the film has opened their eyes to their own relationship with alcohol and prompted them to make a change. The audience was keen to engage in the conversation. One person, who has a family member with an alcohol addiction, said how important it is to raise awareness of these issues. Another person called for policy measures to be implemented such as MUP to curb use across the population.

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Arthur came across as someone who is acutely aware of the damage alcohol is causing in the UK, and is doing what he can to raise the public’s consciousness about it. He has presented a unique look at booze Britain, in equal parts shocking, hilarious, sympathetic and thought provoking – a film we can all relate to. It was a very enjoyable and informative evening and I hope the audience took something away from it. I believe the arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated. It was my hope that by showing this documentary, information on alcohol harms in society would be more accessible to a general audience. Change begins with the acknowledgement of new information that alters the view of ourselves and our behavior. It has been estimated that over 7 million people in the UK are unaware of the damage their personal alcohol use is doing. I believe the blame lies on both sides. Alcohol researchers need to communicate the harms of alcohol in more engaging and accessible ways and members of the general public need to seek out such information. All too often scientists get the reputation as being cold, boring, and amoral. Collaborating with filmmakers and other proponents of the arts on events such as the one I hosted can assist in changing that stereotype.

Welcome to the Real World

Dave Troy 

Taking laboratory studies into the ‘real world’ is every scientist’s nightmare. We love the lab – it’s where we feel safe, where we can control our world, our variables, our environment, and our interventions. However, lab studies can only tell us so much; eventually we need to know whether the findings from our lab studies apply in the real world. This is what the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group (TARG) has endeavored to do. Findings in our lab suggest that individuals drink beer slower from a straight-sided glass compared to a curved glass. As a first step towards testing this effect in the real world, we carried out a small feasibility study to investigate whether a large-scale study might be possible. We needed to find out what outcome measure we could use to measure alcohol consumption, whether pubs and customers would be willing to take part, and what the logistical challenges of running a study of this nature might be. With this in mind, we contacted the owner of Dawkin’s Ales. He was open to the prospect of stocking three of his pubs (The Portcullis, Clifton Village; The Victoria, Clifton; and the Green Man, Kingsdown) with differently shaped pint glasses over a couple of weekends, using monetary takings as a proxy measure of the amount of alcohol consumed. He was extremely supportive of the endeavor and we would like to thank him for all his help. He seemed to be genuinely interested in the outcome of the study and in science in general. The feasibility study was a success: we showed that this type of drinking rate study can be carried out in a pub environment. However, there were some teething problems. Variables such as the size of a dishwasher caused unforeseen complications. Only when you get into the real world, do you realise how unstandardised it is.

Green Man Pub, Kingsdown

Green Man Pub, Kingsdown

What we learned on our adventures in the real world is that communication is key. Cultivating good relationships with pub landlords and staff was vital to the success of the feasibility study. Naturalistic studies are unpredictable – nothing goes to plan. Good communication and rapport with stakeholders is vital and can assist in acquiring high quality data. Pub staff are also a great source of industry knowledge. We were educated on the extent of research by the drinks industry into the effect of different glass shapes on drinking behavior, which is extensive in their opinion. They were also full of ideas regarding what other experiments could be carried out. One of the landlords mentioned that people “drink with their eyes”, which piqued an interest in me about how our other senses may play a role in our drinking behaviour. Another comment was that people tend to drink more quickly when they are standing up. This hadn’t occurred to me before, but I was told that it has grabbed the attention of policy makers, who want to discourage ‘vertical drinking’ by demanding pub license holders supply more seating. Another topic that came up again and again is the use of “nucleated” beer glasses. These have marking at the bottom of beer glasses to promote the formation of bubbles, maintaining the head for longer. The importance attached to it by pub staff and customers suggests it might be an important factor in people’s drinking. All of these are ideas that we may take forward in our lab studies. Pub staff also made valuable suggestions on how to improve future pub studies. One landlady said that we should do it over a whole week to get a better picture of the cadence of an average drinking week.

Nucleation vs Non-nucleation

Nucleation vs Non-nucleation

On a personal level, I learned more as an experimenter helping with this study than in all my previous lab studies. Perhaps surprisingly, the attention to detail and organisation required is above the requirements of a lab study. The logistics involved are greater and an ability to think on your feet is essential. The real world is a challenging place to do research but the advantages are clear. The data collected reflects more natural behavior of participants and therefore your findings have greater relevance. Activity that would have otherwise have gone unnoticed can be observed. Qualitative data collected can inform future research. Another advantage is that you can interact with professionals who have their ear to the ground, which can lead to ideas for new studies. There are also some challenges. There is a greater probability that an external variable, not controlled for in your study, has influenced your findings. Natural environments lack the control of lab studies. It may be difficult to replicate a study when there are so many variables at play. Nevertheless, lab and naturalistic studies complement each other and there is a need for both in science. Advances in technology, such as tablet computers and smartphones, have made acquiring vast amounts of data in the ‘real world’ much easier. Researchers in TARG will continue to engage with the public in natural settings in the future and hopefully capture data that will inform people’s lifestyles and public health policy.