Professor Debbie Riby was conferred to the Fellowship of the Academy in spring 2023. She is Professor of Developmental Psychology and Co-Director of the Centre for Neurodiversity and Development in the Department of Psychology, and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Postgraduate Research Students at Durham University. Debbie’s research focuses on neurodiversity, neurodevelopmental conditions and how we can build a more inclusive neurodiverse society.
Working closely with a variety of charities, partners, and practitioners, Debbie is driven by research that can be translated into practice to ensure her work has relevance to wider communities. Most recently her work has focused on the importance of inclusive education for neurodivergent pupils in mainstream primary and secondary schools in the UK. Debbie’s research has been supported by a variety of funders including the British Academy, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Baily Thomas Charitable Trust, Nuffield Foundation, and National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).
Debbie was awarded the Margaret Donaldson Prize in 2014 for her early career contributions to developmental psychology by the British Psychological Society (BPS) and she has subsequently been Chair of the BPS Developmental Psychology Section (2020-2022). More broadly she has sat on the REF2021 UoA4 panel and funding panels such as the ESRC grant assessment panel and UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship panel.
Debbie is passionate about supporting new talent and early career researchers across the breadth of the social sciences, and beyond, and she was Director of the ESRC-funded North-East and Northern Ireland doctoral training partnership between 2018 and 2023.
Why do the social sciences matter?
Social science research makes real world, evidence-based impacts, meeting the most significant global and societal challenges of our time and ensuring we are prepared for the challenges yet to come. As humans we are social in nature and understanding how our actions, our interactions, and our ambitions relate to, and allow us to respond to, societal and global priorities is essential. Evidence from across the breadth of the social sciences (especially taking multi- and interdisciplinary approaches) can impact policy and practice in critical ways. Furthermore, to achieve the greatest impact, interdisciplinary collaborations are crucial across social science disciplines, and in combination with the physical sciences, arts, and humanities.
What inspires you about your work?
At the heart of our research on neurodiversity, and at the core of our work with neurodivergent young people and their families, is the ability to make a positive real-world impact and translate research evidence into practice. This is especially true for our research and impact agenda within the Centre for Neurodiversity & Development, particularly our research on supporting autistic and neurodivergent young people with aspects of attention, anxiety, and sensory arousal at school (work led by Dr Mary Hanley in our team), and our work with the national Williams Syndrome Foundation on supporting heightened anxiety associated with the genetic condition of Williams Syndrome. I am inspired by the young people we work with and their families, and by seeing the impacts of our research beyond the lab.
What is the most urgent issue social scientists need to tackle today and within the next three years?
The social sciences can make a considerable positive contribution to meeting the significant challenges that we need to tackle as a global society. For example, social and behavioural sciences have been crucial in understanding and impacting our responses to the global pandemic. Within my own area of research, we are still seeing the impact of the disruption caused by the pandemic, especially on pupils returning to the classroom and on neurodivergent young people and their education and well-being. We urgently need to focus on our inclusive education offer and ensuring equality and equity of provision for young people, to allow them to meet their full potential as part of an inclusive and diverse society.
More widely, the social sciences have an integral part to play in impacting policy and practices related to the war in Ukraine, racism, societal inequalities, promoting well-being, and the climate crisis, to name a few. To meet each of these challenges, it will take inter- and multidisciplinary teams working together with a common goal. As social scientists, we need to engage a variety of audiences, explain our work to the wider world, move beyond academic silos, and use compelling evidence-based narrative to showcase our ideas and illustrate our contributions.
What does being a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences mean to you?
I am so pleased to be awarded Fellowship of the Academy and to join this community of distinguished scholars. I am very much looking forward to having the opportunity to support the work of the Academy and contribute to advocating for the value of social science research in meeting our societal priorities.