Why Covid-19 is an opportunity for genuinely diverse research

Surgeon and Emteq Chief Scientist, Dr. Charles Nduka, talks to the Mindlab Academy about why there is no excuse not to be diverse and inclusive in research. 

“In a lot of bathrooms, the hand dryer doesn’t work for me as the sensor to detect hand movement is optimised for Caucasian skin. In my day job as a surgeon, I hear a lot of concerns from female colleagues about the poor fit of PPE masks, as prior to Covid-19 the masks were mostly used for protection in male-dominated industries. The same applies to other technologies such as smartphones which are predominantly designed for male hands as most designers are men. It’s well recognised that in pharmaceutical research, 90% of the development budget is wasted, mainly because the participants in large scale trials do not match the features of those in the early smaller trials.”

“The evidence is very clear in a range of settings that more diversity and more inclusion improves the bottom line. There is a strong business case for having more women making decisions in companies and more diverse ethnic minorities involved in the development of products and services. It makes commercial sense to ensure research represents the population it’s designed to serve. Broadening recruitment beyond people who just happen to be located close to the research centre makes sense morally, scientifically, and financially.”

According to Dr. Charles Nduka, now is the time for businesses to make a concerted effort to change, especially while the Covid-19 pandemic limits social interactions across the world. “The standard way of trying to understand emotions is to ask questions,” explains Dr. Nduka. “That has a big role to play and is the basis of a lot of academic and market research. But the problem is that people are biased and can be influenced by many factors. These include what has happened most recently, the way questions are asked, the environment, the interviewer… all affect the response. Asking people questions is an important research tool but it has its limitations.” 

There are options, he believes for carrying out better, more representative consumer research in the safety of people’s homes. One of today’s alternatives is using headsets with sensors that monitor facial reactions tagged to what they are seeing and hearing in a VR experience. “With VR, many of the biases that can affect people’s responses are removed, with everyone undergoing the same experience. It allows the user to be completely immersed in the environment and because the tech is so intimate – around your eyes, your face, your ears – you can measure how a person is responding to what they are seeing and hearing in a very nuanced way. For psychological research, VR is an amazing tool to understand behaviour. For a range of conditions such as social anxiety and phobias, VR offers ways of developing new insights because you can so closely measure how someone is responding.” 

At a practical level, it also leads to better outcomes due to its portability, says Dr. Nduka. “A headset can be sent to participants anywhere in the world, ensuring a more representative and less WEIRD [Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic] bias. In this way, research problems of the past, don’t become those of the future.” 

Dr. Charles Nduka is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and Chief Scientist at Emteq, a company offering a brain-computer interface platform for measuring emotional response and facial movement, combined with virtual reality. 

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