Social Science’s Impact on Society, Circa 2065: Rebecca Wheeler


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Other winning essays

Overall winner
“CITY Inc.” | James Fletcher, King’s College London
Highly Commended
“The World in 2065: A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science” | Gioia Barnbrook, University of Aberdeen
“They know how much oxygen I breathe, which is fine by me” | Josephine Go Jefferies, University of Nottingham
Shortlisted
“Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered” | Kristin Hübner, University of Warwick
“After ‘posh and white’: the 50 year slog towards achieving educational equality” | Elizabeth Houghton, Lancaster University
“People will soon be at the very heart of law making” | Louise Thompson, University of Hull (PhD)/ University of Surrey (present)
“One morning in 2065” | Matjaz Vidmar, University of Edinburgh
“Navigating private life in a public world” | Sam Miles, Queen Mary, University of London
“Keeping pace with the ‘perennial gale of competition’” | Samuel Ian Quigg, University of Surrey

Last year, Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council asked early career social scientists to try their hand at what might be called social-science fiction, looking at what strides their particular fields might achieve in the next 50 years. And like the best traditional science fiction, the winning essays were grounded in the evidence and research of today extended by smart analysis of what the future can hold.

Science fiction, err, speculative fiction, is in the business of predicting what the world will look like in years hence. And the best science fiction gives equal weight to both parts of its moniker: science and fiction.

The World in 2065, as the contest was named, received an array of submissions covering a wide variety of topics addressing key issues affecting society such as climate change, gender inequality, education and the law. The contest was co-sponsored by SAGE (the parent of Social Science Space), which like the ESRC celebrated its 50th birthday in 2015, and which again like the ESRC is busily writing its own narrative for another successful 50 years.

“Science communication is currently something of a buzz phrase in the academic world, so it was particularly interesting to see how this crop of up-and-coming scientists set about encapsulating their hopes and fears for their disciplines over the next 50 years in under 800 words,” Tash Reith-Banks, one of four judges in the competition, wrote in The Guardian, where she is the production editor for the Science desk. The other three judges were Alan Gillespie, the chair of ESRC since 2009; Miranda Nunhofer, executive director for SAGE; and Martin Ince, a freelance journalist specializing in research and higher education.

Over the next 10 weeks Social Science Space will present the 10 shortlisted essays: the overall winner, two essays honored as ‘highly commended,’ and the seven other essays on the shortlist.

Here, we present the highly commended essay “Policing in Times of Financial Austerity and Beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency” by Rebecca Wheeler of Goldsmiths University of London. You can read her full entry below:

“Policing in Times of Financial Austerity and Beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency”

By Rebecca Wheeler

The UK is in the grip of financial austerity, with police forces among those adversely affected by budget cuts. The Government required a 20 per cent cut in police spending between 2011 and 2015, and the July budget suggests these cuts are likely to continue. The current challenge faced by police is to meet public expectations of policing during austerity, while minimising loss of personnel. Despite this there has been a 15 per cent drop in the number of officers and staff since 2010. This drop in recruitment, combined with the demands of minimising the impact of budget cuts on the public, means police officers are often overstretched.

Rebecca Wheeler
Rebecca Wheeler

One consequence of this overstretching is that training opportunities for officers are increasingly limited, with newer recruits – who often make up the frontline of policing – suffering the most for this lack of opportunity. Minimal time is available for training and, in particular, only one or two days may be allocated to basic victim and witness interviewing skills. This is in contrast to recommendations of HMIC, who suggest a need to improve the efficiency of frontline officers.

Within the UK the ‘Cognitive Interview’ (CI) represents the gold standard for acquiring information from a co-operative witness. The CI is widely studied in the psychological literature. Indeed, a 2010 meta-analysis conducted by Memon and colleagues reported that the CI has been the focus of at least 65 studies since its development. Yet, with minimal training provided, interviews often fall short of the desired standard. This is deeply problematic given the importance of victim and witness testimony to the criminal justice system. In May 2015 The New Yorker reported on a $20 million settlement awarded when it was established that use of the Reid interrogative technique had resulted in a wrongful conviction. The Reid technique is outlawed in many countries, including the UK. Nonetheless, this case shows the impact (financial and otherwise) which poor investigative procedures can have, and has opened the door for any number of similar court cases over the next few years. In light of the technological advances, which allow interviews to be scrutinised in a way not previously possible, it is more important than ever that interviews are conducted appropriately. It is plausible that scrutiny of interviews could reveal inappropriate questioning resulting from lack of training. At best, this could lead to dismissal of evidence. At worst, we could see similar false conviction cases in the UK.

It is by promoting researcher-practitioner partnerships and ensuring that the findings of laboratory studies are transferred to real-world settings that applied cognitive psychology can make a substantial contribution to changing the world over the next 50 years. A first step towards this is to promote the application of psychological research in the training of police officers. A vast amount of research exists on effective learning and memory recall. In recent years there has also been a shift towards research into the efficacy of online learning, something which is likely to continue. In addition, psychological research on how information is cognitively processed has hinted that the layout of teaching materials may affect motivation for learning.

Combining research from these areas will place psychologists in a strong position to advise police forces on maximising training time and improve the efficiency of their interviewing officers.
While further training for interviewing officers should remain a priority for academics and practitioners, researchers should also drive advances in interview techniques themselves over the next 50 years. When the CI method was developed in 1984 it represented a leap forward for investigative interviewing, providing an interview framework and playing a role in minimising the harmful effect of inappropriate questioning on testimony. However, in many ways the CI has not kept pace with memory research, and it is only in recent years that researchers have sought to address this. For example, current interviewing practice does not meet the needs of officers faced by non-cooperative witnesses – a particular problem in the case of crimes such as gang violence. My own research in collaboration with the Metropolitan Police Service and Greater Manchester Police has begun to explore these issues and consider possible solutions through combining principles from memory and social influence research.

Over the next 50 years it is vital that researchers continue to update interviewing procedures to keep pace with the changing demands of modern policing. It is through strengthening researcher-practitioner ties and developing initiatives in partnership with the groups we aim to support that psychologists are able to have the biggest impact over the next 50 years. In this case I hope to see applied cognitive psychologists leading the way to improve the efficiency of policing in times of austerity.


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