“Interdisciplinary initiatives are where most progress happens and where exciting innovations come from”

Maya Petersen, Perspective from Medicine

This is the fourth post of a video series in which we ask leading social science academics and experts to discuss research transparency in their discipline. The interview was recorded on December 13, 2013 at the University of California, Berkeley.

Full Transcript:

I’m Maya Petersen. I’m an Assistant Professor at the Biostatistics and Epidemiology Department at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. I have “one foot in three worlds”: (i) Medicine – I have an MD from UCSF,and work really closely with a lot of clinical researchers; (ii) Biostatistics – I work closely with Mark van der Laan in the Biostatistics division here on the development of new methodologies; and then (iii) Epidemiology. I have an interdisciplinary job, which is a lot of fun.

What is the biggest challenge today in research transparency?

In the clinical world, there are a few. One is just inertia. There is a system in place with legal infrastructure and people are used to it. There is also a very large presence of the FDA, which has been a wonderful thing is many ways, but it does mean that they are certain accepted ways of doing things and sometimes it’s hard to change various ingredients in the system. The flipside is that people see both the strengths and limitations of that system, and there is a temptation among some to throw the baby out with the bath water. The challenge is to navigate the tension between wanting to use new methods, be flexible, and really ask the most relevant questions; and at the same time not giving an inch when we think about doing research that is rigorous, that is going to give us good inferences, and that is not leading us to false conclusions – with all the huge impacts for public policy and public health that that has. Finding a way through that tension is going to be a challenge, but it is an exciting one. There are a lot of really smart people thinking about it from many different angles. It is a lot of fun to play some role in that and meet some of these people.

How did you become involved with the transparency movement?

I’m really excited about this initiative because it is crossing so many disciplinary boundaries. In my work, I have seen that it is where most progress often happens, and where the exciting innovations come from. Coming from a medical research background, I see the need for those innovations also in medicine and clinical research. The medicine and clinical research world has made outstanding progress thinking about disclosure and pre-specification, but for many of the questions on the implementation side – about how to optimize the impact of policy in practice – we still need more complex designs, more complex analyses, and a way to do that while maintaining those very important principles of disclosure, pre-specification and open data. For me, this has been an exciting way to cross some of these boundaries and learn about the thinking in the social sciences. More generally, a lot of disciplines that have traditionally been siloed are converging in terms of the thinking they are doing and the methods they are using. A lot of the barriers really just have to do with language. The more you can bring people together in groups like this and learn about each other’s research and each other’s language is going to facilitate some of the biggest impacts in terms of public well-being and changing policy.

What would be the most exciting direction for BITSS to head in?

Last year’s BITSS meeting was an excellent start. This year, they are a lot more people, leaders in their respective fields. It has been excited to attend. Watching them engage over the discussion sections, but also informally at the breaks, and brainstorm ideas for new projects to go forward, for new ways to evaluate the impacts of the efforts that are being put forward here, is very exciting. Increasingly, there is momentum being generated to move towards transparency, open access, and pre-specification. The next step may well be: Thinking hard and planning about how we are going to evaluate the impacts of those efforts. Basically, doing some pre-specification ourselves about how we are going to look back and say “look this is making a difference” or “they were unexpected risks or harms that we didn’t think about, how are going to make sure we are set up to pick those up if they happen?” What we are seeing here is some really exciting early thinking about that. What I hope to see coming out is these interdisciplinary groups really formalizing some of that thinking, and perhaps even putting together some funded projects to look at the evaluation of this effort in itself.