Ralph Hertwig on the University of Basel’s Advances in Psychology

Institutional Feature, November 2011

University of Basel

According to a recent analysis of Essential Science IndicatorsSM data from Thomson Reuters, the University of Basel had the highest percent increase in total cites among institutions in the field of Psychiatry & Psychology.

The university's current record in this field includes 467 papers cited a total of 4,526 times between January 1, 2001 and June 30, 2011.

Among the 22 fields covered in the database, Basel ranks in the top 1% in 17 fields, and many of the professors also rank in the top 1% of their fields.

IN THIS INTERVIEW, SCIENCEWATCH.COM TALKS WITH PROF. DR. RALPH HERTWIG, DEAN OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY, ABOUT BASEL'S CITATION ACHIEVEMENTS.


SW: How do you account for the University of Basel's increase in the number of citations in the field of Psychiatry & Psychology in recent years?

The most important reason is that in 2003 the University of Basel's leadership made the deliberate decision to build up the Department of Psychology. The department now has the distinction of being the youngest of the University's seven major faculties. Our young faculty has quickly developed into a thriving hub for psychological research.

Right from the outset, members of the department shared the commitment to focus our efforts on a few research areas that we considered particularly promising. Our strengths, emanating from nine labs and two research professorships (financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation), are human development and mental health, behavioral decision-making, and cognitive and molecular neuroscience.

The department has also aimed to take advantage of synergies within the university, which, for instance, resulted in the hiring of two professors who hold joint appointments in the Department of Psychology and the University Psychiatric Clinics (UPC) of the University of Basel. Importantly, members of the UPC have, of course, also contributed greatly to the publications that have resulted in the observed increase in the number of citations.

SW: The Department of Psychology has only been around since 2003. What factors or circumstances led the University of Basel to set up the department?


Images of the University of Basel’s Department of Psychology, its teaching and research facilities.

Prior to the creation of the Department of Psychology, there was an institute of psychology, modest in size, which had been founded in 1978. The institute was part of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Basel, the oldest Swiss university, founded in 1460. Over the years, however, it became increasingly clear that an experimental discipline such as psychology and one that has the aspiration to be internationally competitive has needs in terms of staff, research support, and facilities that differ from a typical department in the humanities.

In 2003, in light of this and the strongly increasing number of psychology students, the then-President of the University decided to invest resources in staff, buildings, and research facilities and create a separate Department of Psychology. The current leadership has built on this vision, and the increase in the number of citations indicates that the university is beginning to reap the first fruits from these investments.

SW: There are several centers under the umbrella of the Department of Psychology at Basel. How independent or interdependent are these Centers?

The centers are independent and the heads of the centers are free to pursue their own research interests. However, the department has deliberately decided to concentrate its efforts in a few research fields and has made its hiring decisions accordingly. Therefore, the centers, by design, share common research interests that are testified by numerous joint research papers co-authored by members of different centers and by a number of large-scale research grants that members of different centers have jointly procured.

SW: Behavioral decision-making, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and anxiety disorders are topics with high paper outputs. Would you talk a little bit about the university's efforts in these areas?

Behavioral decision-making is indeed one of the research strengths of the Department of Psychology. Basel happens to be the intellectual birthplace of the expected utility theory, the most influential normative theory of decision making under risk, which can be traced back to the eighteenth century and Daniel Bernoulli, one of Basel's most famous professors. Therefore, Basel is a natural place to launch a research endeavor on the cognitive tools underlying human decision-making.

Our main focus is this research is to develop and test cognitive models of how people make decisions when time is limited, information is unreliable, and the future is uncertain. In addition to the research related to decision-making, the Faculty actively collaborates with the Medical Faculty and the UPC.

"Basel happens to be the intellectual birthplace of the expected utility theory, the most influential normative theory of decision making under risk, which can be traced back to the eighteenth century and Daniel Bernoulli, one of Basel's most famous professors."

Schizophrenia, depression, sleep disorders, anxiety disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases belong to the main areas of psychiatric research in Basel and the research in these areas benefits significantly from the advances in brain imaging and human genetics techniques.

SW: Are there other specific areas of research within the realm of Psychiatry & Psychology on which the University of Basel particularly focuses?

There are several other outstanding and excellent research clusters that are closely associated with psychiatry and psychology. One is the field of molecular neuroscience in which Andreas Papassotriropoulos, who has a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology and the medical school, studies DNA and RNA at the level of the entire genome with the goal of identifying the biological foundations, genetic pathways, and genetic clusters underlying psychological phenomena such as human short-term and long-term memory, Alzheimer's disease, and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).

Relatedly, Dominique de Quervain, who also has a joint appointment in psychology and medicine, studies the effect of stress, stress hormones, and emotions on memory. He has found, for instance, that glucocorticoids impair memory retrieval and he is now investigating the clinical implications in patients with PTSD and phobia.

SW: What research fields or capabilities do you see as critical for the future of the University of Basel?

Basel, a city in the northwest of Switzerland and bordering France and Germany, accommodates an unusual concentration of global pharmaceutical and chemical companies. Therefore, the University of Basel has its strengths in the life sciences. Psychology and psychiatry are, in our view, key because they bridge the life sciences and the behavioral sciences. This function of building a bridge between disciplines is important because, we believe, many contemporary global challenges—be they exploding costs in health care, the implication of the demographic developments, global warming, to name a few—need the concerted effort of the life and the behavioral sciences.

Within the fields of psychology and psychiatry, it will be important to provide the necessary facilities and resources to practice the multi-method approach that is increasingly a signature of the research undertaken in Basel. We use a wide range of techniques to study human behavior, including behavioral experiments, cognitive modeling, imaging techniques (PET, fMRI, EEG), transcranial magnetic stimulation, and human genetics. This combination of research methods is a prerequisite for successful translational research, which ultimately aims at carrying basic research results efficiently into psychological and medical practice through in-depth understanding of the functions of the human brain.End

Prof. Dr. Ralph Hertwig, Dean
Department of Psychology
University of Basel
Basel, Switzerland


UNIVERSITY OF BASEL, DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY'S MOST CURRENT MOST-CITED PAPER IN ESSENTIAL SCIENCE INDICATORS:

Hertwig R, et al., "Decisions from experience and the effect of rare events in risky choice," Psychol. Sci. 15(8): 534-9, August 2004, with 154 cites. Source: Essential Science Indicators from Clarivate Analytics.

KEYWORDS: PSYCHOLOGY, FACULTY, LABS, HUMAN DEVELOPMENT, MENTAL HEALTH, BEHAVIORAL DECISION-MAKING, COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE, MOLECULAR NEUROSCIENCE, SYNERGIES, JOINT APPOINTMENTS, EXPECTED UTILITY THEORY, DANIEL BERNOULLI, COGNITIVE MODELS, RISK, SCHIZOPHRENIA, DEPRESSION, SLEEP DISORDERS, ANXIETY DISORDERS, NEURODEGENERATIVE DISEASES, RESEARCH CLUSTERS, GENETICS, HUMAN MEMORY, ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE, PTSD, STRESS, STRESS HORMONES, EMOTIONS, PHOBIA, GEOGRAPHY, BASEL, IMAGING TECHNIQUES, TRANSLATIONAL RESEARCH, GLOBAL CHALLENGES.

 
 

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