Note: This is a preliminary/comprehensive exam question turned blog post, hence the longer than normal length and jargon. For a more thorough review on this topic see Van Bavel et al., 2020 and for an action plan for responding specifically to systemic racism see this google doc.
Individuals, children, and families across the globe are facing an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended daily life for all and comes at the precipice of the George Floyd murder that has ignited serious calls to action for addressing systemic racism. The longstanding economic and racial inequalities are magnified more than ever, and the situation is being exacerbated by the exponential increases in unemployment rates. As developmental scientists, the importance of context becomes ever more apparent as we consider the role we play in confronting these crises. Below, I outline several responsibilities of citizen scientists—on topics ranging from methods to community engagement—as we navigate an uncertain future. In doing so, I highlight important caveats and trade-offs that exist given the confounds of academia but ultimately argue that we must strive for holding ourselves to these standards if we are to meaningfully inform programs and policies that support today’s youth.
Place context at the center of our inquiry
A foundational first step as a field comes with careful consideration of the ways in which we plan to focus our research questions on the current context. Contemporary approaches to studying poverty can be leveraged to understand how the economic toll from the pandemic may exert cascading effects on development (e.g., Raver & Blair, 2020). Proxies of context like income that oftentimes get used as a “catch all” are not sufficient for understanding the complex ways the present-day context is influencing human development. Conceptual models must include the larger structural forms of racial and socioeconomic inequality in addition to the heterogeneous proximal stressors that families are facing at home and in their communities during such uncertain times. In addition, the statistical models we adopt should include both between and within person variability, combined with person-centered approaches that afford greater interpretability and specificity. Similarly, it will be important to determining the size of the effect that each contextual factor has on children and individual outcomes. Doing so will allow us to identify not only the variation in sources of stress families are coping with that may be malleable to intervention, but also the structural forces at play that could be addressed through institutional change. For example, directly measuring the vast array of racial disparities across multiple domains—such as healthcare, safety, education, housing, and unemployment—we are able to put more proximal observations such as parenting quality in context to understand why parents may be struggling to care for their children. Such an approach places the focus on the systems our society is built on rather than placing the blame on the individuals trying their best to navigate them (Syed, Santos, Yoo, & Juang, 2017).
Acknowledge the constraints of generalizability
With context naturally comes core issues of measurement and generalizability. In a global pandemic, we may want to measure things like levels of social support, parenting sensitivity, economic strain, and chaos in the home. Yet, many of these constructs may not have the same meaning across time or across racial-ethnic groups, which could lead to socioculturally inappropriate conclusions (DeJoseph, Sifre, Raver, Blair, & Berry, under review). The constructs we choose to measure are only good to the extent to which they reflect common substantive and quantitative scales across groups and time. Termed measurement invariance, when unchecked can generate spurious conclusions driven by measurement artifact rather than true differences in the outcome of interest (Borsboom, 2006; Meredith, 1993). If one tests and adjusts for non-invariance, then appropriate generalizations can be made. In practice however, analytic methods of measurement invariance are difficult and tedious; unsurprisingly, most researchers do not directly assess it in their studies. As scientists, these obstacles can and should be overcome if we intend to make inferences about the global population or even specific subpopulations that undoubtedly contain important variance.
In a similar vein, quantification of our constructs and the ways in which we experimentally manipulate or model them in relation to other variables can come at a cost. These costs vary depending on the operationalizations given to our measures and the specifics of how generalizable our conclusions are if data were collected in a non-naturalistic setting with less ecological validity (albeit with a high level of control that experiments might afford us). As highlighted in Yarkoni (2020), researchers tend to make strong general claims and then instantiate those statistical tests of those claims in a much narrower way. He provides an example of the dangers of extrapolating through a simple comparison of two hypothetical titles one can give their manuscript: “Papers should be given titles like ‘Transient manipulation of self-reported anger influences small hypothetical charitable donations’ and not ones like ‘Hot head, warm heart: Anger increases economic charity.’” While a humorous dichotomy, it illustrates the fine line we walk along when interpreting our research. In a global crisis with a lot at stake for the well-being of today’s society, care must be taken to explicate the constraints of our findings.
Humanize a human science
Developmental psychology is arguably a rigorous quantitative science, but as human scientists, we play a huge role in ensuring our work is humanizing and gives justice to the complexities of the human condition in uncertain times. While quantitative models that serve to describe and make predictions across multiple levels of analysis is indeed valued, taking time assess the qualitative nature of what diverse communities are experiencing is essential to the integrity of our work. Deeper appreciation for individuals’ communities can be done through focus groups, volunteering at local agencies and shelters, or even including an open-ended question in our studies about peoples’ experience in relation to COVID-19. Such practices and the descriptive information we acquire from those will greatly inform the questions we ask and the ways in which we measure them. In addition, and perhaps most important, we can leverage our scientific tools and outlets to bring a voice to marginalized communities being disproportionately affected right now, and subsequently co-create programs that support their fight for social justice (Raver & Blair, 2020).
There is also the opportunity to evaluate the myriad of ways families and communities are coming together to build resilience and collectively fight for greater equality. Scholars are increasingly adopting integrative strengths-based approaches that examine adaptive responses to a wide range of challenges implicated in contexts of adversity, as well as the extent to which the presence of positive factors serve protective roles (Frankenhuis, Young, & Ellis, 2020 for review). Parental responsiveness in context of homeless for example, has been shown to buffer children from negative outcomes (e.g., Narayan et al., 2014). Such strengths-based and individual difference approaches better capture how families struggling with financial uncertainty are still able to create environments that are emotionally secure, affirming, and safe. Identifying and explicitly acknowledging these sources of strength in our work will be critical for informing prevention and intervention efforts aimed at supporting children, families, and individuals in these challenging times.
Open science, team science!
Open science and team science are more than just a fad, and are two practices we are increasingly responsible to participate in if our goal is to respond to the current state of the world. The reason for this becomes clearer when looking at the mission of the open science framework (osf.io): “…we believe an open exchange of ideas accelerates scientific progress towards solving our most persistent problems. The challenges of disease, poverty, education, social justice, and the environment are too urgent to waste time on studies lacking rigor, outcomes that are never shared, and results that are not reproducible.” Preregistration and registered reports will make the question asked and quality of the method at the forefront, rather than an “interesting” result according to an arbitrary threshold of p<.05 (see Bishop, Chambers, & Munafo, 2019). This movement can be seen across many fields and especially the social sciences. Just recently, Child Development put out their first call for registered reports to show their support for open science. Alongside the open science movement is the call for greater collaborations across cities and nations to generate large, prospective longitudinal datasets. This movement is illustrated in large NIH-funded projects like ECHO and ABCD, which will allow researchers from across the world to address the most pressing social problems.
Be a part of the conversation
The appalling level of science denial that we have seen in recent decades—especially during global crises like the one we are in now—makes the translation of our work ever more crucial. As the creators of our science, we must take responsibility for appropriately translating our findings to the general public and local policy makers. A straightforward first step for this is to have an online presence where full control over the research narrative. Online social media platforms like Twitter are useful tools for communicating the key takeaways from research findings where a discussion of limitations can be included. Writing op-eds for high traffic news outlets (e.g., New York Times, Washington Post) are powerful ways to not only communicate your work but explicate how the findings shed light on a social issue or inform policy. Trainees who want to begin working up to writing high profile op-eds can write blog posts. Just recently, a postdoctoral trainee Dr. Rose Perry launched a nonprofit called Social Creatures (thesocialcreatures.org) that includes a team of graduate students who write about the importance of social connectedness during COVID-19. Lastly, interviews with press and diligent training on how to participate in these interviews (to ensure your findings are represented fairly) will be important for transmitting our work globally. As scientists, we have a voice, and with the right platform, we can make influential change.
Science communication to educators, policy makers, and clinicians are also critical for cultivating bridges across disciplines to ensure key findings are used in practice (responsibly). Writing policy briefs, contacting our local representatives, giving lectures in the community and policy-related events, among others, can help foster greater sociopolitical dialogue and action as research on the pandemic progresses.
An ugly truth
Most, if not all developmental scientists want to meaningfully engage with all of the above actions. The biggest trade-off in all of this is time. Rigorous methods, community engagement, open and collaborative science, and political action takes time for a researcher who is under the burden of the tenure clock. We function under an incentive structure that places productivity above all else—”publish or perish” goes the old adage. While an ugly truth, until things change many of the aforementioned practices needs to be a personal choice for the researcher, who is also trying to balance a personal life. It will likely not be an all or none choice, but rather one that varies across a spectrum and depends on the stage of one’s career. Still, every effort must be made to tackle these issues and make these practices the new norm if we are to truly make an impact on today’s socially pressing issues. The hope is that the current incentive structures dramatically adjust in order to meet the needs of the communities we came here to serve—in times of a global pandemic and otherwise.