Research 2030

The value of creating a healthy research culture: Dr. Judson Brewer

May 19, 2021 Elsevier Season 2 Episode 3
Research 2030
The value of creating a healthy research culture: Dr. Judson Brewer
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, host Claudio Colaiacomo welcomes renowned neuroscientist, psychiatrist, book author and mindfulness expert, Dr. Judson Brewer to the show. Together they discuss the crucial role mental wellbeing programs and support play in cultivating a positive research culture.

See full show notes and guest biographies

Featured Guest
Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center and associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University 

 Dr. Judson Brewer is the director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center and associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University, as well as the executive medical director of behavioral health at Sharecare. His new book is called Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind

Guest Host and Interviewer:
Claudio Colaiacomo, Vice President for Academic Relations at Elsevier

 As well as being Vice President for Academic Relations at Elsevier, Claudio Colaiacomo is also a Mindfulness trainer and coach.

Claudio Colaiacomo holds a degree and a masters in physics, an MBA and a Masters in contemplative neurosciences from the University of Pisa. He is a Mindfulness trainer and coach interested in fostering mental wellbeing in complex organizations and academia. In his earlier career, he has worked as a researcher in the US and Austria after moving to Elsevier where he covered several managerial roles. Today he is Vice President for Academic Relations: a role where he meets with the management of research institutions in Southern Europe and the media with the aim of exploring synergies and new ways to serve the scientific community. He’s an expert on the publishing industry and his interests include physics, history and philosophy. He is an experienced speaker and published author himself. Claudio is 49 and lives in Rome with his family.

Mancini (00:05):

Hi, I'm Giacomo Mancini and welcome to research 2030 an Elsevier podcast series in which our guest experts, discuss, debate, and dissect the complex topics faced by research institutions today. And welcome to our latest episode, the value of creating a healthy research culture. It's no secret that the life of a researcher is a challenging one, whether they are vying for funding, balancing research activities with teaching uncovering new findings, trying to get published or seeking a permanent position. The competition is fierce. COVID-19 has only raised anxiety levels. Global lockdowns have seen researchers juggling limited or no access to their labs. Along with the pressure to shift lessons online, some have been furloughed face pay cuts or promotion delays, and even face the threat of redundancy. Creating a positive research culture has been linked to university-wide benefits, such as greater researcher, productivity, retention, and collaboration, and even in overall improvements to research quality and impact.

Mancini (01:06):

However, some studies claim that faculty are facing peak levels of stress right now, with more than a third, considering a change of role. What can university leadership do to help reduce stress and make strides in cultivating a positive research culture? According to our guest today, renowned neuroscientist psychiatrist, book, author, and mindfulness expert, Dr. Judson Brewer, commonly known as Dr. Jud. There are positive actions that university leaders can take to improve their institution's research culture. In this episode, he explores the options with fellow mindfulness advocate and Elsevier as vice president for academic relations, Claudio Colaiacomo.

Colaiacomo (01:46):

So good morning, Dr. Brewer. we're happy to have you here in this podcast.

Brewer (01:53):

Thanks for having me.

Colaiacomo (01:54):

So let me begin with a rather general question for many people stress and anxiety are unfortunately daily companions. They certainly are to me, could you tell us how are they linked to happiness and satisfaction?

Brewer (02:09):

Yes. Well, I would say there's certainly antithetical to happiness and satisfaction and they're linked in the ways that I think a lot of us are experiencing every day where, you know, I think of stress as you know, these, these things that for example, we have a to-do list and our to do list gets too long, and then it becomes the end of the day. And we get stressed out that we're not going to finish everything. So that obviously reduces our happiness and our satisfaction. And in fact, the stress can lead to anxiety where we just have this feeling of nervousness or worry that that can be there even without a specific precipitant.

Brewer (02:47):

You know, I think the definition is something like this feeling of worry nervousness, or, or unease about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. And over the last year, all seen a lot of things with uncertain outcomes, whether it's pandemic related to health issues or the economy or school, or, you know grants, you know, my lab has been had to go virtual or a year ago. So we've not been able to do the neuroimaging studies that we typically do. So there's, there's a whole lot of uncertainty leading to a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety for folks.

Colaiacomo (03:29):

Yeah. We're certainly witnessing that also here at Elsevier we're home-based for feels like forever these days. And it's really putting a lot of new dynamics of, of stress anxiety and worry. In general, you mentioned your lab and I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the work you do. I know you put stress, anxiety, and negative habits to the test specifically by using mindfulness. Could you tell us a little bit more about what you do and specifically what mindfulness is?

Brewer (04:03):

Sure. Well, we can start with the definition of mindfulness. That can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I like the simple components of mindfulness, which are basically awareness and this attitude, no quality of curiosity. Some folks describe it as non-judgment, but I really see this as, you know, we're bringing awareness to what's happening and we're not jumping to conclusions, you know, like any good scientist, you know, we don't want to assume things. We just want to see things as they are. We want to see clearly. And that's really what mindfulness is about. It's being aware of what's happening and not being biased or not coming in with a prejudice or prejudging anything. And my lab has been, you know, I'm an addiction psychiatrist. So as a clinician, I see patients with addictions. I see a lot of folks with anxiety, and I see a lot of folks with both comorbid conditions where anxiety leads to an addiction or an addiction contributes to anxiety.

Brewer (04:59):

Or, they both show up at the same time, and I've been very interested in developing treatments to help people with addictions and that interests broadened two habits in general were, you know, at first done some work a lot of work with mindfulness training in particular, in helping people with addictions and that broadened to help me people with habit change. You know, it was looking at, for example, we did a study with smoking where, you know, we've got five times the quit rates of gold standard treatment for smoking cessation with mindfulness, for example. And so, we started thinking, you know, can we apply this to other things? So, my lab studies like overeating and we even develop apps and study those. There's an app that we studied called eat right now, where we've got a 40% reduction in craving related eating. And then we started to see how can this actually broaden to other habits.

Brewer (05:47):

And this is where I learned that anxiety can actually be driven as a habit, which, which led to us developing an unwinding anxiety app. We got really good results with, and then led to me writing this whole book called unwinding anxiety, because there's this whole, you know, I'd never known in medical school or residency. I'd never learned that anxiety could actually be driven that way. So broadly speaking, you know, my lab studies habits and how to change them, how to develop treatments for them, everything from neuroimaging, you know, basic neuroscience, understanding what's happening in the brain all the way to translational and then clinical studies where we study at based mindfulness training programs to see how well they work.

Colaiacomo (06:30):

Okay. Wow. I actually read your book. So, you, you answered one of the questions that I wanted to ask you. And I really loved how it dissects, you know, all the dynamics of anxiety, almost taking it apart. And I love the science behind it, and it's really useful a resource. And I really, really enjoyed it, but specifically to mindfulness, I mean, do you think mindfulness has unique advantage over other practices? Because I mean, our listeners maybe use to other practices yoga or other stress relief practices, but you seem to have focused specifically on, on mindfulness what's so peculiar about that?

Brewer (07:09):

Well, I I'm taking a neuroscience approach and one of the things that I've really been struck by when studying habit change is that the only way to really change a habit is to tap into the brain's reward system. So, for example, there's a, you know, forever, I would say, and there's even a, a relief on the Parthenon in Athens. I think. So this is that, well, this is this idea that willpower, you know, asked to fight with the passions and you know, that it's this horse and a rider and the riders, the willpower and the horses passions, of course the horse is stronger than the rider. So yeah, it hasn't stopped us from developing treatments and taking approaches for stress reduction and habit change based on willpower. Yet, if you just look at dieting, for example, where we have this now, how does yo-yo dieting you know, phenomenon, let's call it where people, you know, they have a little bit of, you know, they can use their willpower to lose some weight.

Brewer (08:09):

Then they came back and then they lose it and they gain it back. So, I, I I've really been approaching these things through a neuroscience lens and the, you know, this reward system requires one thing actually to change behaviors, which is awareness. So, you have to become aware of how unrewarding an old habit is and how rewarding a new habit or a new behavior is. So that's why I've been taking this mindfulness approach because it seems very targeted toward these mechanisms of behavior change. So somebody stressed out, we can bring awareness in and, and help ourselves both understand how our minds work, but also begin to work with them because we can see, you know, Oh, what am I doing? That's leading to this stress or contributing to it. And what's, you know, what might be, what might I be able to find that helps with it? You know, certainly things like yoga and other things can be helpful. But it seems that awareness gets right at the root of the issue.

Colaiacomo (09:13):

Yeah. All right. Well, making a way towards mindfulness, stress, and anxiety in the world of, of research. I watched a recent interview. I think it's, it's on your website where you mentioned that while you were a young researcher you suffered from high levels of stress yourself and even panic attacks. I think you mentioned waking up in the middle of the night with a full-blown panic attack. First question is how did you address that back then?

Brewer (09:44):

Yes. So, this was, I was starting to get panic attacks during residency training. There's a lot of, a lot of stress in training to be a physician. And I, you know, fortunately I've been practicing mindfulness for about 10 years and I've been doing in particular one infamous practice called noting practice, where I would note thoughts and emotions and body sensations. And so, when I'd wake up with a panic attack, its mindfulness kind of kicked in as a habit where I could note, Oh, literally, Oh, I feel like I'm dying. Oh, I feel like I can't breathe. Oh, I have tunnel vision. Oh, my heart is racing. And what it could do is help me see, Oh, these are physical sensations. These are thoughts. It's certainly unpleasant. And, Oh, I just had a panic attack yet. I didn't add to it afterwards. It wasn't, you know, what leads someone to go from a panic attack into full-blown panic disorder is that if they start worrying about having future panic attacks or avoiding situations that, that were associated with panic attacks. So, I could see that as a panic attack go, Oh, I had a panic attack and get curious, Oh, panic attack. And then I could go back to sleep.

Colaiacomo (10:59):

Okay. That's, that's, that's fascinating. It really speaks to how important it is to practice, right. Such a, such a skill like mindfulness in order to then be able to use it in such a moment, you know, where in action, you're actually going through something which is so dramatic as a, as a, as a panic attack, but you, you made me think of, of something is that you mentioned the, the pressure that, that you were suffering going through a training. There is a recent article in nature was publishing in November, but there's a wealth of, of, of information around, around this area that shows how competitiveness and pressure levels are increasing in the research world to the point of affecting researchers, perception of happiness and satisfaction. Now, as a professor yourself, as dwelling in the research community, do you recognize stress levels rising among graduate students or researchers in general?

Brewer (11:56):

It, you know, it's hard to know that for certain, because I think, you know, we all felt stressed during graduate school and, you know, early in our careers and whatnot. So, it's hard to know if it's particularly worse, you know, the, the publisher parish adage has been there forever. Yeah. I would say there is one piece here that, that is new, that is relatively modern, which is the ability to compare ourselves to others. So social media, you know if you, I certainly follow a number of researchers on Twitter. And so, you know, it's great to get information on Twitter where somebody says, Oh, you know, we just published this paper. And then I get, you know, it's like, Oh great. I, you know, I just learned about that, but then it's also easy to say, Oh man, they're publishing a lot or, Oh, wow. That was an amazing paper. Why aren't, you know, why aren't my papers that good, you know? And so, you can imagine graduate students. So not graduate students, post-docs professors, everybody it's, it's much easier to have this social comparison where it wasn't as much in our face all the time. You say even 10 years ago.

Colaiacomo (13:04):

Okay. Yeah. Well, there is a, there is a similar study that was done by the Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust, the funder in the UK they published this a, a report is freely available on the online on their website. And they actually went directly asking questions to researchers about these topics and about their perception of, of stress in in, in the research environment. And there's three data points that I wanted to point out. One is this 42% of university managers say that they have not received training to manage people, let alone receiving training to manage people emotionally. And only 32% of researchers say that their managers care for their well-being. Does that surprise you? Does that resonate?

Brewer (13:54):

It doesn't surprise me. And it resonates a hundred percent. When I started my own lab. That was one of the things that I just kept saying to myself, wow, why didn't I get training? You know, this is a small business that I'm running here. You know, I have to get grants, I have to manage people and the people have to be happy. And so, you know, there's that other piece around the emotional wellbeing is, you know, often researchers, maybe I'll just speak from my own experience. It's nice to kind of just dive into the research question because it's concrete, it's quantifiable. And then people's emotions, they're messy, you know, and I can say, this is a psychiatrist when I go to my clinic, you know, it's kind of like putting on my psychiatrist hat when, when I'm in the lab or, you know, working with my lab members often, you know, my brain wants to just go to, you know, well, you know, let's not deal with the fuzzy stuff because it's, it's, it's harder to quantify. And our brains just don't like uncertainty in that respect. So absolutely I can totally relate. And I wish graduate students had a course on how to manage people, how to work with emotions, even just something simple on emotional intelligence would be amazing and, you know, pretty, pretty straightforward to learn.

Colaiacomo (15:10):

Yeah. Yeah. And the funny thing is that most of the knowledge comes from academia. You know, it's especially around emotional intelligence, as you mentioned. So, it's, it's, it's fascinating. There's a third data point, which I kept for last, because it baffled me a little bit. This data point from, from this work and trust study says that 52% of researchers either sought or intended to seek for professional psychological help. Now, do you think university leadership is aware of the drawbacks that stress and anxiety have on the research effectiveness of the institutions they manage?

Brewer (15:50):

I think they are beginning to become more aware. And some of this is that they just can't ignore it anymore because it affects productivity. It affects the, the wellbeing of, of faculty and staff. And ultimately it affects the bottom line because if somebody is having a nervous breakdown, they're not going to be writing grants that are going to bring money in for the university.

Colaiacomo (16:13):

Yeah, yeah, definitely. Well, actually one item that wasn't addressed in that in that third bullet point, that 52%, which I wish the Wellcome Trust would have asked the researchers is, well, if you did get professional, psychological help, where did you find it? I mean, did you go to your psychiatrist or maybe did you find it within the institution? Now? I know some institutions are pretty well advanced. I know of Berkeley law, for instance, they have a center where you can actually go to seek for a mental wellbeing, help, or psychological safety initiatives at NYU that I know of. Are institutions equipped to happen. And do you think there is a culture of asking for help within the scientific community?

Brewer (16:58):

I have not seen a culture of asking for help. A lot of scientists are very individualistic, you know, where it's like, I've got to do my research project, I've got to run my lab, you know, and I really appreciate the collaborative nature that is starting to take hold in science where, you know, we're working together as teams. And I think that that helps in terms of people saying that it's, you know, it's okay to ask for help. The other thing we're seeing just broadly across the world is this acceptance of, you know, wellbeing and mental health. You know, a lot of, a lot of folks have really brought that to the light and saying, Hey, it's okay to be anxious. It's okay to have, you know, struggles. You know, I think the Royal family in the UK has been very vocal and outspoken around, you know, Hey, you know, we, we all should be talking about these issues because we all have them and it's important to focus on.

Brewer (17:54):

So, I think that has helped a bit, as far as resources, you know, a lot of universities have a lot of, you know, have good healthcare plans and resources and whatnot. One of the things I think that makes people hesitant is, you know, within a university, they don't want to, you know, they, the confidential confidentiality issues are certainly top of mind where they don't want to be seen as, Oh, that person, Oh, I saw that person going to, you know, psychological counseling or something like that, where that, that stigma is still there. My hope is that that stigmatization will reduce over time, as everybody starts to say, Oh yeah, I'm anxious too. You know? And just normalizes it.

Colaiacomo (18:38):

Yeah. Well, the words that you're saying are really resonating a lot from my corporate world perspective, there are famous examples, right? Like Google pioneered this, right. That they had this search inside yourself program 15 years ago. Nowadays SAP SAC, the software company, they have a mindfulness director and there's other companies that have these things. At Elsevier, we have just this mindless program. We do mindfulness. We do compassionate listening, meditation, all sorts of things. So, what I'm trying to say here is, do you think that the corporate world and academia could partner to cross-pollinate or share best practices? Or have you seen any positive examples of that?

Brewer (19:25):

You know, I think it's a great idea because I think both have real strengths. So, corporations are good at getting things out into the world. Quickly. Academia is really good at studying to see if things really work. So, so often I've seen corporate programs get spun up where, you know, somebody on leadership thinks, Oh, it's a great idea. Let's get a mindfulness thing going, for example. And then they hire a consultant or somebody and they say, Hey, do this. And that person says, okay, I'll do this. And there's not a lot of, you know, let's just say, might not yield good evidence-based results. So here, I think partnering, you know, having corporate's excitement for these things partnering with academia to look at, you know, what are best practices, for example, or even, Hey, let's do a study in my corporation. You know, corporations are great for doing randomized controlled trials because you can, you can, you can see which what actually works. So, I think there are a lot of ways that industry and academia could actually partner. I haven't seen a lot of it, but I hope that that changes

Colaiacomo (20:35):

Or even the other way around if I may, if I may add, like, you know, if there is a successful program within a company, which is already working and people are scoring high on happiness, maybe that very program could be brought into, I don't know graduate school or, or, or an institution.

Brewer (20:52):

Absolutely. Yeah. So, it goes full circle. So, a corporation could develop something quickly, whereas it might take academia a little bit longer to develop something, although not always the case, academia studies it and says, oh yeah, that works really well. And then they say, well, let's, let's adopt that, you know? And then, you know, and you publish some papers showing that is helpful in that spreads the word that, Oh, here's, you know, here's a good evidence based program and here's a corporation that has it packaged nicely to deliver.

Colaiacomo (21:19):

Actually, the reason why the Wellcome Trust did this study is because the Wellcome Trust is a funder. So, the funder is actually, you know somebody who brings in that or actually participate to that culture of having to compete for funds and publishers to have that right. You know, the publishing areas and the journals we publish and the metrics and all these things. Right. So I think it's very important that these players of the extended scientific community also begin to think if they can contribute to, you know, help out in the direction of, of, you know better mental wellbeing and yeah. And, and, and, and stress management.

Brewer (22:02):

Yeah. And you're highlighting something that I I'd love to see take hold even more, which is all of us thinking about this as we're all in this together, you know, so it's the idea is to help humans live happier, healthier lives, right. And so, everybody plays a role. The researchers play a role, the publishers play a role, the funders play a role. And if we all see this as, Hey, how can we work together doing this? Not only does it get done better and more efficiently, but it's more fun because, because it feels good to work as a team.

Colaiacomo (22:39):

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. There is a statement from Jeremy FARA, he's the president of the Wellcome Trust and that he States that the relentless drive for research excellence has created a culture in science that cares only about what is achieved and not about how it is achieved. I think this is very much rhymes with what you're saying, right. We're so much focused on hitting the numbers and success and sometimes forgetting that well, the mechanism is made of humans and humans need to be happy in order to perform well.

Brewer (23:10):

Yes. If we're, if the overall aim is to improve human health, we can't do, we can't be making health worse by trying to discover things that would help make it better. There's a huge irony in that.

Colaiacomo (23:22):

Yeah. So, let's imagine you were tasked to craft a mental wellbeing program for research. So, let's even imagine you were a university chancellor yourself, would you base it on mindfulness, or would mindfulness be like a pillar of, of what you would implement?

Brewer (23:43):

Well, I'm biased because been studying mindfulness for, you know, 20 to 25 years. And I will say, as a psychiatrist, as a clinician, if I had found anything better, I would one I would promote. I would suggest that as compared to my patients as compared to mindfulness from a psychological standpoint. So certainly, this is different than medications. And the, and the other is that it, it works pretty darn well, you know, I, we just completed three clinical studies now on an app based mindfulness training, this unwinding anxiety app, where we got, you know, anxious physicians, we got a 57% reduction in clinically valid anxiety scores. We did a study with generalized anxiety disorder. We got a 67% reduction. So here I bias because I can, I can test the efficacy and I can also discover the mechanism of how this stuff works. And it all, it's pretty consistent. We're seeing that, you know, mindfulness works very well for things like stress and anxiety.

Colaiacomo (24:46):

Okay. Would you feel comfortable with the statement that the research culture is at risk of keeping healthy?

Brewer (25:01):

Okay. Let me just sit with that because the first thing that comes to mind is, you know, we've got to be healthy ourselves to be able to do good research and, you know, for a number of reasons. So that’s if that's getting at your question. Yeah, I that's, what I would say is, you know, if we're not grounded, if we're not healthy ourselves, we're going to, you know, we're not going to be emotionally able to work with challenging situations. There are tons of challenging situations all the time in research and academia and the other is that we're more likely to be calm, misguided, or easily be drawn into things that we will regret. So for example, you know scientific misconduct, for example, if, if somebody is really feeling the pressure to publish and then, you know, they take a shortcut or they don't check a result, or they've got something that they should probably run by somebody, but they don't.

Brewer (26:01):

And then they, you know, it's like, Oh, got to get this paper out the door, they're missing the whole point of science, which is to find truth as much as we can define what truth is. Right. Really find reproducible results because ultimately science is always going to win. Somebody is going to come and say, Oh, we can't reproduce that. Or that sketchy. And then somebody for that short-term gain somebody's entire reputation in the career is ruined because they've gone down the wrong track. If we can keep ourselves grounded, it's much easier to be able to stay with the primary questions, which is, Hey, what is the truth here? And the other thing that that helps us with is it helps us stay in growth mindset, you know, where we're open being creative, we're open to discovering new things, but we've got to be grounded emotionally to be able to do that.

Colaiacomo (26:51):

Yeah. Grounded emotionally, that's, that's such a powerful statement. It really brings this flare of, of stability and focus, which is very much pertaining to mindfulness, as you were saying before as we head us, the conclusion of this, this, this podcast, I wanted to just read out another quote from you know, taken from this study done by the Wellcome Trust. And it's almost like a, a call for action, which I'd love you to command. It says poor research culture ultimately leads to poor research. The pressures of working in research must be recognized and acted upon by all, where all means funders, research leaders. Now the statement ends right there, but I add publishers too. And like we said before, all the other players in the, in the, in the extended scientific community, do you agree that this is one of the avenues to address stress and anxiety in, in academia

Brewer (27:53):

A hundred percent? And I would say here, you know, this really comes back to the fundamentals. If we don't know how our minds work, we won't be able to work with them. So individually, collectively societally, and if we're not being aware of how these pressures might be driving us away from the fundamental goals of doing good science, then we're never going to be able to work with it. We're always going to be playing catch up. So, I think that is it, I a hundred percent agree that that is fundamental.

Colaiacomo (28:20):

Great. Well, Dr. Jud, thank you very much. This has been wonderful. And it's been, eye-opening, it's been very interesting. Thanks for your contribution. I really, really appreciate that.

Brewer (28:30):

It's my pleasure.

Mancini (28:32):

Some of the points raised in this episode make sober listening as Dr. Judd notes. There's an irony in the fact that we are jeopardizing the health of the very people working to improve our welfare. It's clear that both Dr. Jud and Claudio feel that solving a problem on this scale requires not only university leaders, but a wider group of stakeholders, particularly industry and academia partners, and that while programs designed to reduce anxiety, such as mindfulness can play a crucial role. There are other points to consider as the welcome trust highlighted nearly half of all university managers have never received people management training, something Jud believes we should address. We want to thank Dr. Jud for sharing his knowledge with us here in research 2030. And if you have any questions or comments to share with us about this episode or the podcast in general, we would love to hear it. Send us an email at That's research Are you interested in learning more about Judd's unwinding anxiety app and book our show notes, contain more information and links to explore again, I'm Giacomo Mancini. And thank you for listening to this episode of research 2030, and please don't forget to sign up the research 2030 on your favorite podcast provider. That way you'll be the first to hear about new episodes.