Psychological Science Accelerator
Human behavior, by default, is a very complicated thing that is hard to capture in small and specific experiments. The Psychological Science Accelerator, winner of the 2022 Institutional Award, has made its name by facilitating large, crowdsourced international studies in all aspects of the discipline and by democratizing and diversifying big team psychological science.
After attending the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science conference in 2017, Christopher Chartier, Associate Professor of Psychology at Ashland University, Ohio, was inspired to write a blog post about how a “CERN for Psychology” could help tackle the research reproducibility crisis impacting psychology and other areas of science. The post was extremely popular, and within a month, over 100 psychology labs had asked him where they could sign up.
Chartier’s fledgling idea turned into the Psychological Science Accelerator (PSA), a distributed network to enable and support crowdsourced research projects. Five years later, the organization has 2,468 members in 73 countries. Although many of the members are based in Western Europe and North America (around two thirds), 12% are in Eastern Europe, 9% in Asia, 5% in Latin America, and 2% in Africa.
Nicholas Alvaro Coles, now Director of the PSA, was working on his PhD at the University of Tennessee when he helped lead the organization’s first big study on face perception. Similar studies had been carried out in the past, but primarily in Western regions. This initial study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, recruited 11,570 participants in 41 countries — an impressive feat given that most psychological science studies typically struggle to recruit more than a few hundred participants and are mostly carried out by White scientists from Western countries.
“As a graduate student, I thought this was a very unique way of collaborating — the most promising way we can tackle the big questions,” says Coles. “That’s why I decided to double down and focus on further building up big team science.”
“What can happen throughout academia is a siloing of expertise into small clusters of individuals who have direct power relationships with one another. What is exciting about the Psychological Science Accelerator is that this is a grassroots network of individuals from across the globe who have come together to try to disrupt that pattern.” (Suzy Styles)
A key distinguishing factor about the Psychological Science Accelerator is its distributed nature and democratic decision-making across the membership. This is one main factor that impressed Einstein Foundation Award jury member Suzy Styles, an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, about the organization. “What can happen throughout academia is a siloing of expertise into small clusters of individuals who have direct power relationships with one another,” she explains. “What is exciting about the Psychological Science Accelerator is that this is a grassroots network of individuals from across the globe who have come together to try to disrupt that pattern.”
Coles was appointed Director in early 2021. With funding from Stanford University, he now fully dedicates his time to running the Accelerator. Since he has been in the post, the Accelerator has gone from strength to strength. It now has 12 projects in its portfolio, three published in Nature Human Behaviour, one in PNAS and one in Affective Science, with plans for many more in progress.
The largest study the organization has produced so far involved testing a brief cognitive intervention to improve emotional well-being during the pandemic, one of three large COVID-19-related studies completed by the Accelerator. It involved over 450 researchers, who collected data from nearly 28,000 participants in 87 countries and 42 languages.
Coles explained that in order to attract more members from around the world and make study investigators and participants more diverse, they are trying to identify research questions that are globally relevant. “We don’t want labs to join just so that they can help us solve the questions we’re personally interested in. We want it to be mutually beneficial. Our three international studies on COVID-19 were the most popular among our members, and that’s because they were relevant to everyone.”
“I think that ability to reach into your network, find the experts, and bring them onto the team is a way that any discipline could increase research rigor.” (Nicholas Alvaro Coles)
The large size and multiple country distribution of the Accelerator network help to ensure members carry out robust and reliable research. Every proposed project can be reviewed by the PSA community, and once a project is started, the network also lends itself to crowdsourcing expertise. “I think that ability to reach into your network, find the experts, and bring them onto the team is a way that any discipline could increase research rigor,” notes Coles.
The organization has also always been welcoming to researchers at all levels of seniority. “You don’t have to have your own lab,” emphasizes Styles. “You might be a PhD student in an under-resourced part of the world and you’re very interested in some of the activities of the Psychological Science Accelerator. You can still contribute what you have and gain knowledge along the way.”
Transparency is a guiding principle for the Accelerator. All data, materials, and code are open, and all proposed studies must be pre-registered before the work even starts. It is also very open about how it spends its funding, with all expenses and balances tracked on a publicly open platform. “To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t many organizations that engage in science where you could go to a website and see exactly how they spent their money,” says Coles.
Until now, the Accelerator has been run mostly by volunteers with limited funding, but this is now starting to change. In 2021, the John Templeton Foundation awarded ex-director and founder Chris Chartier a grant of nearly $1 million to fund further Psychological Science Accelerator projects and three new personnel positions. As part of a broader project, the John Templeton Foundation also awarded a team led by Michael McCullough and Nicholas Coles funding to partner with the Accelerator on a global study on gratitude. The Einstein Foundation Award will also be a big boost for the PSA.
Despite being a young organization, the Accelerator has already inspired the foundation of other big-team science projects such as ManyPrimates and ManyDogs, focusing on primate and dog behavior, respectively. They were also co-organizers of the first interdisciplinary Big Team Science Conference this year, held virtually in October with more than 450 registrants.
“In the future, we hope to also serve as an incubator, where we work with people who have promising ideas that aren’t yet fully developed,” says Coles. “Particularly if a person is located in a region where there have traditionally been barriers to access, we hope to be able to dedicate resources to helping them develop their idea, make it relevant to the broader Psychological Science Accelerator community, and obtain the funding they would need to pull it off. In doing so, we hope to build a big team science that can be led by anybody with promising ideas — not just those who are fortunate enough to have pre-existing institutional resources to develop those ideas.”