Developmental science grows up

How do we nurture the impact of learning science?
jordandreyer, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
jordandreyer, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Developmental science is a discipline rife with opportunities for impact, both across fields within academe, and on the public: It sits at the interface between cognitive psychology, neuroscience, health, and education. Moreover, a deeper understanding of longitudinal predictors of educational outcomes has great potential to influence policy. However, a huge challenge for early career researchers in developmental science is to establish early routes to impact emerging from their research.

It is easy to cast learning science as worthy of investigation, but it is often only when researchers have accumulated a wealth of findings and completed projects that this impact begins to influence practitioners and policy makers. How can learning scientists at the beginning of their career develop the tools needed to maximise interactions that will ultimately lead to their work having impact? Bodies bringing together researchers at all levels of their careers are increasingly attempting to support this transition, and for excellent reasons: Without guidance and support, early career researchers can lose track of applied and translational potential of their work, caught up in the gruelling search for “the next postdoctoral fellowship”.

I believe that an important set of tools in this process are, first, opportunities fostering points of contact between learning scientists, practitioners, and policy makers from very early on in the process of developing research questions. Second, excellent mentoring, both from senior scientists and other young researchers, can provide inspiration and practical directions.

Recently, two fantastically dynamic graduate students and I decided to set up an initiative that we hope will provide some tools to early career researchers along these two dimensions – interactions and mentoring. We set up the “Development – Impact and Science Early Career Network” (DISCERN) to foster ongoing dialogue between basic researchers and practitioners, in particular for early career researchers in this area, by extending to online fora the opportunities that normally only emerge at meetings. For example, one of our meetings focused on targeting interactions across researchers working on neurodevelopmental disorders, and one focused on making applied links with teachers and practitioners.

“It is easy to cast learning science as worthy of investigation, but it is often only when researchers have accumulated a wealth of findings and completed projects that this impact begins to influence practitioners and policy makers.”

Discussions at those meetings generated an interest in evaluating how big data may foster the future of developmental science, and this interest in turn generated the momentum for organising a series of workshops on this topic, again attended (and led) by early career researchers. These training events were made publicly available. Mentoring opportunities were flagged as needed by many early career researchers we worked with. A recent aim of DISCERN has therefore been to link multiple interconnected open access resources relevant to mentoring for early career researchers in the discipline.

Responses from social media audiences, meeting and workshop attendees, as well as online tool users, have been extremely positive. We believe that our small experience is a call for future large initiatives in developmental science to keep an eye out for developing researchers.

The Flux Congress acts as a forum for developmental cognitive neuroscientists to share their findings, expand their knowledge base, and be informed of translational approaches. This conference, taking place in Portland September 16-18, 2017, is designed for scientists who use neuroimaging techniques to understand age related changes in brain function and structure.

The author of this blog post, Gaia Scerif, spoke about the dynamics of attention development during the Flux Congress.