Featured Article

President's message

Building bridges, not walls: Reflections on global research and education.

By Manfred Diehl, PhD

I had started to write this second column for the Div. 20 newsletter before I started a trip to Washington, D.C., for a colloquium/workshop titled “Global Research in the 21st Century: Perspectives of the U.S. Humboldt Network.” The colloquium was organized by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation of Germany and was co-sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences, the German Research Foundation (DFG), the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The primary objective of the colloquium was to bring previous and current Humboldt award recipients together to discuss perspectives on and barriers to global research in the 21st century. Not surprisingly, recent political events all over the world (i.e., not only in the U.S.) gave the conference a particular sense of urgency and importance.

Being at this networking event with scientists from disciplines representing the entire spectrum of the natural sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and the humanities motivated me to change the topic of my column. In particular, my conversations with researchers from very different disciplinary backgrounds and very different parts of the globe, and their reactions to my answer when I said that my research focused on adult development and aging convinced me that the topic of internationalization of research is a rather hidden topic within Div. 20, however, one that clearly deserves more attention.

Please don't get me wrong; my intention is not to say that members of Div. 20 are not aware that population aging is a global phenomenon requiring approaches and answers that transcend national borders and boundaries—a similarity with the topic of global climate change, by the way. I also know that many former presidents of Div. 20 have been role models in bringing aging researchers from different countries together, connecting young scholars from other countries with senior scholars in the U.S., or collaborating on international research projects.

Similarly, many members and fellows of Div. 20 have been instrumental in and are committed to training international graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and/or have spent time in other countries to learn firsthand about the lay of the land in these countries as it relates to adult development and aging, both from an individual as well as societal perspective. However, what became so clear to me at this recent Humboldt colloquium is that the world is changing, and we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to be mindful about not losing sight and not becoming complacent in communicating the work we are doing. And these communication efforts need to focus on conversations with representatives from other scientific disciplines and on representatives of our own discipline from other countries, may it be in Europe, the Mideast, sub-Saharan Africa, or the Far East.

Talking to individuals who do not necessarily speak the same professional language may not always be easy. At the Humboldt Colloquium, my presentation was grouped in a program section titled, “History, Law, Economics, Society,” and I had no idea about what to expect or who my audience would be. During the initial introductions, I learned that the other presenters and the majority of the members in the audience were political scientists, historians, economists and lawyers. I had no idea how these scholars would react to my presentation titled, “Changing Negative Views on Aging to Motivate Healthy Aging”—especially given that it was the final presentation of the day and given that I earlier had overheard some skeptical remarks regarding “psychologists.”

Well, I was in for a very positive surprise. Not only did all attendees stay in the room and listen attentively to my presentation, but they were also lively and engaged during the Q&A period with thoughtful questions, insightful comments from their disciplinary backgrounds, and suggestions that enriched my thinking and gave me new ideas for future work. For me, this was a completely unexpected outcome and taught me that my initial trepidations had been unwarranted and perhaps self-serving. However, the main lesson that I took from this experience was that we need to actively seek and embrace the opportunities to talk to representatives from other disciplines and other nations whenever we can get them. Every missed opportunity is a lost chance to advocate for research and education in adult development and aging.

Another major lesson I took away from this event on “Global Research in the 21 st Century” is that we should collectively reflect more about how we, as a division, can systematically incorporate an international perspective and international initiatives into our agenda and, by doing so, contribute to the overall mission of the American Psychological Association and a truly global research and education community.

Attracting and training highly motivated and qualified students and post-doctoral research associates from other countries to our research labs and universities is one way to contribute to the global community. Encouraging our own undergraduate and graduate students to spend a year or a shorter period of time in another country, working with colleagues there on their projects and getting to know the culture of the host country is another way. But these are just two very basic and obvious examples. I am certain that many other opportunities for international and global cooperation and collaboration exist and that a collective brainstorming would generate many more ideas.

Thus, I want to invite all members of Div. 20 to think along these lines and let me know if they are interested in such efforts and initiatives. I also want to encourage our graduate student and early career members in Div. 20 to give some thought to the idea how their work could be enriched through international collaborations. There are a number of organizations and funding mechanisms available that can help especially graduate students and early career scholars to make such international collaborations possible.

In closing, I am aware that this is the half point of my time as president of Div. 20. Time has gone by fast, and I hope that the remaining time will still permit me to complete a number of important tasks.