Collaboration Tackles COVID Through Psychological Science

During the nearly two-year stretch of many seasons and variants of COVID-19, central topics that are still at the core of news stories and conversations with colleagues and family members are how public health information is created, communicated, and applied. While most scholars and clinical experts are often quick to admit the challenges still in front of them, it is worth noting how the social and behavioral science community has remarkably stepped up to help disseminate and build on the medical research community.

The Association for Psychological Science (APS) Global Collaboration on COVID-19 brought experts together to assess how their field has contributed to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and identify possibilities for new research to answer unanswered questions.

These questions anchor the discussions of each working group:

  • How has psychological science been used to inform solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • How could psychological science research have been better integrated into the COVID-19 response, and how could it be better used to address future public health challenges?
  • What scientific knowledge gaps must be addressed through new research?
Andy DeSoto
Andy DeSoto

I had the opportunity to ask Andy DeSoto, APS’s director of government relations, how the initiative came about and their goals for project. DeSoto is an MA and PhD graduate of Memory Lab of Henry L. Roediger, III, at Washington University in St. Louis’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. Our question-and-answer session appears below:

Maxine Terry: Apart from the pandemic itself, what spurred the “Global Collaboration on COVID-19?”

Andy DeSoto: The APS Global Collaboration on COVID-19 arose from concerns that psychological science—and the behavioral and social sciences broadly—weren’t at the table during COVID-19 response planning occurring around the world. Frankly, we’re still not at the table to the degree we believe we ought to be. Our hope was that mobilizing the psychological science community would help illustrate to the public and policymakers the many ways human behavior is central to pandemic prevention and response and strengthen our ability to provide needed psychological science insights and guidance.

We think our concerns may be catching on. Last month Francis Collins, the newly retired head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, observed in an interview with NPR, “Boy, there are things about human behavior that I don’t think we had invested enough into understanding.” APS agrees, and we hope that the collaboration will also help identify future targets for broadened investment by NIH and the world’s other science funders.

Interested in learning more about psychological science and its relevance to COVID-19? Click here to register for a free January 21 event: “Psychology Meets Biology in COVID-19: What We Know and Why It Matters for Public Health.”

MT: Can you talk about the process of getting buy-in from scientists and institutions on the project?

AD: We are in awe of how generous APS members and others in the field have been in committing their time to this collaboration!  Dozens of psychological scientists have already stepped forward to lead or participate in the project’s working groups, and hundreds more have volunteered their expertise. This engagement continues despite the many professional and personal challenges posed by COVID-19 and its variants. We have taken a flexible approach to organizing the project and have mainly let the effort’s scientific leaders decide on what sorts of projects or outputs are most important in the domains for which they are working.

There’s been strong scientific community interest in the work of the collaboration. Participants from 29 different countries attended a recent webinar stemming from the collaboration titled “Mental Health in a Global Pandemic: Lessons Learned From Psychological Science.” You can read more about this event and watch a recording by clicking here.

MT: What are your goals for the “Global Collaboration on COVID-19” project? Is the audience mostly the APS community, or broader?

AD: To answer the second part of the question first, we see three main audiences for the collaboration—the scientific community broadly, policymakers, and the public. While we certainly hope other psychological scientists will participate, this effort is concerned with making sure that what we know and are learning scientifically is reaching the audiences that would most benefit from this knowledge.

We hope that the collaboration will help inspire among scientists of other disciplines new ideas for partnership with psychological scientists and related experts. We view psychology as a hub science with the potential to collaborate with and contribute to many other fields. Hearing about the ongoing work of psychological scientists in this arena will highlight to others the fundamental insights about mind, brain, and behavior that members of our community can provide. Plus, psychological scientists are also seasoned in methodological and statistical techniques that are critically relevant to these pressing questions; they can be valuable leaders or collaborators on interdisciplinary teams.

Additionally, we hope that those who make challenging decisions on behalf of the world’s many countries see the value of the study of human behavior and its application. Likewise, we hope that policymakers will help members of our field understand how to improve their scientific communication, better connect fundamental science and practice, and grasp what pressing policy needs are and how psychological scientists can better serve the public.

We hope too that members of our communities who are not scientists can learn more about what psychological science is and how it is relevant to so many societal challenges, pandemic included. In a sense, we’ve all had to become citizen behavior scientists amid COVID-19’s threat. How do we make decisions and judge risk? How do we foster social relationships amid unexpected circumstances? How can we maintain our mental health in the face of trauma and loss? How does the remote or otherwise changing nature of our jobs affect our work? These are questions many of us are facing daily. Psychological science can help answer them.

MT: Are there any plans to tie-in with non-psychology fields on some of these questions the project is exploring?

aps LOGO CIRCA 2022

AD: Absolutely. Some of the working groups focused on different aspects of psychology and COVID have brought onboard members from other scientific fields such as gerontology, education, epidemiology and public health; others are connecting with policymakers, members of the media, and more in their work. APS is a member of different coalitions that bridge different scientific fields. We’re making sure that our colleagues from these fields know about the collaboration, public events, and recommendations or other outcomes as they arise.

Our eagerness to integrate other scientific fields is part of one of APS’s guiding principles, which is that removing disciplinary barriers and promoting integrative, interdisciplinary science is key to advancing knowledge.

What are your plans to consider future implications, as in the broader impacts of the pandemic and social and behavioral science (as opposed to looking backwards or narrowly on infectious disease)?

We’ve asked our working groups to tackle three big questions. Two are a bit retrospective: How has psychological science been used to combat the pandemic? How has our field not been applied in ways it perhaps should have been? The answers to these questions will prove useful as they should help to identify future research, education, and training priorities. The third question is completely forward-looking. It asks: What does psychological science need to do so that we are prepared, as a field, for the next pandemic or future public health crisis?

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Maxine Terry

Maxine Terry is a corporate communications specialist with SAGE Publishing. She previously covered judiciary and housing policy as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

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