Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The blog monster

Posted by Mark Welford

You may have noticed that change is afoot in Fuse-land and this includes the blog.

Since its inception in February 2010, the blog has hosted 250 posts and received nearly 105,000 individual page views. Of those 250 posts, Jean Adams - the founder and force behind the Fuse Open Science Blog - has written a whopping 94 or to put it another way, 38 per cent!
 
The blog is a monster that needs to be constantly fed and when food's been scarce on Jean’s watch she's always been on hand to rustle something up.

The ravenous blog monster
It began here with the blog’s first ever post. Since then she has regaled readers with tales of being a media darling, balancing work and life, showing Fuse duck around Newcastle University, her experience as a medical student, and provided advice to PhD, MSc, and research students. She's written about blogs and blogging, knitting, trekking, running, her introversion and fear of the phone … and sometimes even had time to write about research.

So, the news that Jean is moseying out of town in search of pastures new (what’s the second oldest University in England got on Newcastle - gondolas?) leaves a rather large Jean shaped hole, metaphorically speaking!
 
Our solution? Create a Fuse blog working group to fill the gap.

Let me introduce you to the friendly group of Fuse members who now oversee and edit the blog: Amelia Lake, Lecturer in Knowledge Exchange in Public Health at Durham University; Jonathan Ling, Reader in Public Health at the University of Sunderland; Jenni Remnant, PhD Student at Newcastle University; Avril Rhodes, Fuse Knowledge Exchange Broker; Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager; and me.

Yes, change is scary but change is also exciting and this is an opportunity for new ideas and new people to keep the blog vibrant.

One of the original aims of this platform was to act as a tool to provide two-way engagement with people from outside of academia in local and regional government and other public, private and voluntary organisations. In its current form, the blog is focused on providing insights into public health research and over time could be said to have evolved into more of an internal resource, with posts often - but not always - written by researchers for researchers. 

This isn't a bad thing - after all we are a research centre - and we would like to thank all those who have contributed so far and made the blog the success we believe it is. But we think it can be even better! As well as researchers we want to encourage ALL those working in and around Public Health to contribute to the blog in order to stimulate an open forum for debate that captures the full breadth of population health.  
 
If you work in Public Health then please get in touch. 
  • We want hear about your aims, priorities, and challenges.
  • Which issues need to be brought into the public eye and debated?  
  • Can you provide an insight into your role in Public Health for those not directly involved?
  • Is there a public health related campaign in your area that you want to promote, or could you write a post that coincides with an event or a topical news issue?
Or simply let us know if you have any other ideas on how the blog can be improved.
 
We publish posts twice a week and publicise these via our main twitter account (@fuse_online), Amelia’s account (@Lakenutrition) and Peter’s (@pvandergraaf75). We welcome posts of around 500 words. These tend to be light-hearted takes on the day-to-day joys and frustrations of being involved in Public Health and often spark interesting discussion, both on-line and in person.
 
Email your posts to m.welford@tees.ac.uk or contact any member of the group by following the links above.
 
Finally, a big thank you to Jean for her dedication in feeding the blog monster. We all wish her well in her new position with the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) and the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

52 weeks in public health research, part 38

Posted by Jean Adams


I noticed this US section in a supermarket in Oxford recently. I’ve seen UK sections in French supermarkets, but never US sections in UK supermarkets. UK supermarkets are hardly a paragon of food virtue, but I was amused to remember quite how silly some of the food in US supermarkets is.

 
These pop tarts proudly proclaim that they’re a ‘good source of 7 vitamins & minerals’. But this claim has been blanked out. Presumably it doesn’t comply with UK/EU regulations on what counts as a ‘good source’!


I love health claims like this ‘fat free’ one on a product that has 90 calories per unit! There is some evidence that these claims have ‘halo’ effects with busy consumers interpreting ‘fat free’ as healthy.

 
This retro Pepsi has real sugar in it! Presumably to attract people who don’t like the nasty sweeteners in diet Pepsi or the ‘natural’ sweeteners in Coke Life. How bizarre that we’ve got ourselves to a place that ‘real sugar’ is now a thing to proclaim.

 
 
------------------
A reminder from the Fuse blog group:

Each Thursday of 2014 we’ll try and post around four pictures on the Fuse blog that capture our weeks in public health research, from the awe-inspiring to the everyday and mundane. Given that more of the latter than the former exists in most of our lives, we foresee problems compiling 208 images worth posting on our own. So this is going to have to be a group project. Send an image (or images) with a sentence or two describing what aspect of your week in public health research they sum up and we’ll post them as soon as we can. You don’t have to send four together – we can mix and match images from different people in the same week.

Normal rules apply: images you made yourself are best; if you use someone else’s image please check you’re allowed to first; if anyone’s identifiable in an image, make sure they’re happy for it to be posted; nothing rude; nothing that breaks research confidentiality etc.
 
Email your posts to m.welford@tees.ac.uk or contact any member of the Fuse blog group.
 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

As long as you can manage to stay awake

Posted by Jean Adams

I was sitting in a meeting the other week when someone started talking about ‘Jamie and Tom’,* in a slightly context-free way, like I would definitely know who they were. It was at this point that I realised I only knew who about 50% of the people around the table were and that we’d got to agenda point 3 without any introductions.

One of the most common activities I did as a medical student was sitting at the back of a clinic. The doctor would do their job, seeing each patient on that morning or afternoon’s list; my job was to learn by observing. It’s not always easy to keep concentrating on this sort of ‘just watching’ learning. Hospitals tend to be warm places and the student isn't actively engaged in the consultation. To help me stay awake, I made a rule that I would try to ask the doctor at least one question after every patient. Sometimes I asked questions I knew the answer to, just to prove to everyone that I was still awake.


"Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic 1889" by Mark Skrobola - note how engaged medical students were in the 19th century
I’m not sure I can remember anything I was actively taught during a clinic. What I really remember is learning what sort of doctor I did, and didn’t, want to be. I wanted to be the doctor who spent a whole afternoon consulting with people with the dreadfully debilitating, but hard to treat, chronic pain syndrome without once loosing their patience. I never wanted to be the doctor who walked out of the door when their patient started weeping, leaving the nurse to 'deal with it'.

As the meeting went on I eventually worked out that Jamie was female, and was a little bit upset with myself for auto-assuming she wasn’t, but a little bit pleased with myself for taking a tiny step towards nailing down her identity. Then someone started talking about GVS-super-TRP**. I looked at the meeting papers for a clue as to what this might be, lost the thread of the discussion, and my brain slipped away to something much easier.

In order to stay awake, I wrote a list of the things that had gone wrong in the meeting. Right there, on my agenda: no introductions, no explanation of GVS-super-TRP. Looking back, I hope that I wrote in enough of a scrawl that the person next to me wasn’t able to witness my impudence. It’s not like I'm some ninja-meeting super-hero. Note: I didn't interrupt to clarify what GVS-super-TRP was, or ask who Jamie and Tom were. Participants not asking for clarification when required was on my list.

The bad meeting experience reminded me of my medical student days and how much you can learn by just watching. How much you can learn about how to do things well and how to do things badly.

I was attracted to medicine partly because I liked the idea that it would take a long time to get any good at it – learning and working at doing it well would keep me busy for a while. Similarly, I like that research is not something I will be done learning soon. You don’t get a piece of paper one day saying “you are now qualified as a researcher: go forth and research”. There is always more to learn and always more opportunities for learning – even from meetings that don't go so well. As long as you can stay awake.


*Obviously not their real names, but definitely one name was one that could be either male or female.

**Whatever it was, I don’t want to compromise the true acronym’s confidentiality, so also not it’s real name.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

52 weeks in public health research, part 37

Posted by Jean Adams

The seminar room and cafe in our building are often used for small conferences by groups from around the university. I snapped this at about 7pm in the evening when one such meeting had well and truly turned the corner from conference to social. We never have beer, tobacco and biscuits at public health meetings. Honest.

This is the 'famine wall' on Beinn Dearg near Ullapool. This part of it is more than 1000m above sea level. It runs for many miles and is more than 8ft wide and 8ft high in places. It was constructed in the 1840s by farmers whose harvest had failed in return for money, or food. There are remnants of many of these 'make work' projects all over the north of Scotland (and I presume Ireland too). It would have been considered unseemly just to give starving people money (as per the modern welfare state). Instead, humanitarian landlords thought up projects such as these to keep their tenants occupied and fed. You can see that it was a beautiful day when we were there, although you can't see the chilling winds strong enough to knock us over at times. The conditions up there are likely to be dreadful more often than not. Despite the problems with the current welfare state, I still think it's better than having people build useless walls at 3000ft in Scottish mountain weather.

I took this picture of lemon cake at afternoon tea time at the recent meeting of the World Public Health Nutrition Association. I was fully intending of making the usual comment about the ironic placement of unhealthy food at a public health nutrition meeting. Turns out most of is was left at the end of the tea break.

This is an interesting development that I noticed at a petrol station recently. It was quite a substantial promotion on Coke Life - sweetened with stevia and with about two-thirds of the calories of red Coke. There's an interesting discussion of the 'natural' and 'low(er) calorie' claim here. Personally, I think two-thirds of the calories of red Coke, is still a lot of calories.

------------------
Just to remind you:

Each Thursday of 2014 we’ll try and post around four pictures on the Fuse blog that capture our weeks in public health research, from the awe-inspiring to the everyday and mundane. Given that more of the latter than the former exists in my life, I foresee problems compiling 208 images worth posting on my own. So this is going to have to be a group project. Send me an image (or images) with a sentence or two describing what aspect of your week in public health research they sum up and I’ll post them as soon as I can. You don’t have to send four together – we can mix and match images from different people in the same week.

Normal rules apply: images you made yourself are best; if you use someone else’s image please check you’re allowed to first; if anyone’s identifiable in an image, make sure they’re happy for it to be posted; nothing rude; nothing that breaks research confidentiality etc.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Haste ye back?

Posted by David J Hunter, Professor of Health Policy and Management, Durham University and Fuse Deputy Director

Many in the North East will be wondering how their region will fare if Scotland decides to go its own way on Thursday.

Some may be heard to say: ‘if you’re going can we come with you’?  Others might sullenly fear the worst, with our region caught between a hungry new nation impatient to prosper and chart a different course on the one hand, and an England which seems captive to the huge suction pump that is London hoovering up all before it and drawing in talent and resources from across the UK – or what was the UK.   

Where might health policy figure in the scheme of things post-referendum?  Will it fare better under independence? Or will things remain much the same or possibly deteriorate?

Financially, the Scottish NHS has always fared better than its English counterpart, enjoying higher per capita funding.  But spending on health services is not the only factor affecting health status.  Despite the extra funding, Scotland’s health remains stubbornly poor and generally inferior with higher mortality – hence the label the ‘sick man of Europe’.

Of course, with less funding for health care it might be worse.  But it’s more complicated than that. 
Perhaps liberated from the shackles and centralising tendencies of the UK (or London to be more precise), Scotland will be able to restore the public realm or invest in ways which will demonstrate that an austerity economic model can be replaced by a social model of development.

We know from Marmot’s work and WHO’s health strategy for Europe, Health 2020, that tackling the social determinants of health demands a whole of government and whole of society approach. 

Being able to achieve such joined up thinking and work across a whole system is much easier (in theory at least) in a small country.  And there are certainly signs that Scotland wants to be innovative and tackle health differently with its recently departed Chief Medical Officer, Harry Burns, extolling the virtues of asset based approaches and talking about wellness rather than ill-health.           

The Scottish government has been something of a cheerleader in public health policy having been quick to follow Ireland’s lead on banning smoking in public places long before England.

More recently, it took the lead in introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol although whether the policy will survive the EU single market rules remains to be seen. But where England dithers, Scotland appears willing to take bold action.

The real issue is whether an independent Scotland can do more to improve health and tackle inequalities than it can under current devolved freedoms and from others to come which are promised following a No vote.  

The answer is complicated.  After all, what does independence actually mean in our global world where paradoxically everything is interdependent at a time when nations and regions seek greater freedoms.  Are these opposing forces reconcilable?   Or will independence prove to be a chimera with Scotland even less able to realise its social justice aspirations?

Those voting with their heads will endeavour to weigh up the pros and cons and bring evidence to bear on their decision-making.

Those ruled by their hearts will not be swayed by an evidence base which is fiercely contested and offers no definitive answers.  They will be tempted to take the risk believing they have nothing to lose with the status quo and retention of a 300 year old Act of Union holding little appeal. 

But will the politics and the policies be so different in the end or just their packaging and presentation?   Can an independent Scottish government shake off the neoliberal embrace to which all governments since, and including, Thatcher have been enthral? 

In a global economy, no country is an island and to keep at bay, never mind hold to account, the rapacious transnational conglomerates, including the big consultancies and ‘advisers’ and lobbyists that are busy hollowing out the public realm in England, demands both vigilance and political courage of a kind that will tax the most socially enlightened politician.  

This is the true nature of the experiment underway in Scotland regardless of whether it achieves formal independence after the referendum or some form of ‘devo max’.

Can Scotland break with the Anglo-Saxon tradition and replace it with an ethos marked by collectivism, reciprocity and a commitment to public services? 

Or will it buckle under the pressures of global capitalism and dance to its tune?                

Yes or No, Scotland promises to be a fascinating laboratory for years to come for health policy-watchers.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

52 weeks in public health research, part 36

Posted by Simon Howard and Jean Adams

From Simon Howard: after the photo of the Messi Pepsi can, I thought this one I took on holiday in Naples took the biscuit - the Napoli football team as tins containing chocolate chip cookies! Judging from the end product, I'm not sure they thought too hard about the aesthetics, let alone what the public health consequences might be!

From Jean Adams: In October we are moving to Cambridge and we've been using our East Coast rewards points to house hunt in style. But all that time spent searching property websites during the week means that we are making use of the peace and space of first class to catch up on work.

From Jean Adams: I was in London earlier in the summer at one of those meetings that looks like you are being invited to contribute your expertise, but is actually someone very politely asking you to stop making so much fuss. The meeting ended early and I took the opportunity to visit the V&A's Disobedient Objects exhibit before my train. This Nicholas Klein quote made me feel just a little alone and ignored.

From Jean Adams: the 'big move' means that I have finally had to find the time to clear out my desk and cupboard. After ten years of not looking at any of them once, I am parting with my PhD notes. Both a little bit gut wrenching and a little bit liberating.

------------------
Just to remind you:

Each Thursday of 2014 we’ll try and post around four pictures on the Fuse blog that capture our weeks in public health research, from the awe-inspiring to the everyday and mundane. Given that more of the latter than the former exists in my life, I foresee problems compiling 208 images worth posting on my own. So this is going to have to be a group project. Send me an image (or images) with a sentence or two describing what aspect of your week in public health research they sum up and I’ll post them as soon as I can. You don’t have to send four together – we can mix and match images from different people in the same week.

Normal rules apply: images you made yourself are best; if you use someone else’s image please check you’re allowed to first; if anyone’s identifiable in an image, make sure they’re happy for it to be posted; nothing rude; nothing that breaks research confidentiality etc.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

You can't ever win

Posted by Jean Adams

Brian McNeil sings a song called Sell you labour not your soul. The chorus goes: “Young and old, true and bold/ Sell your labour not your soul/ Solidarity's your goal - join the union”. It invariably involves a lot of audience foot stamping and fist waving.

I was reminded of this song during a conversation with my ‘leadership mentor’ a few months ago. NIHR sent a guy up to Newcastle to watch me at work, feedback on my leadership style, and discuss my career direction with me. My mentor had worked with lots of people funded by NIHR, so when he asked which UK academics I really wanted to be like, he knew the names I reeled off. “If you want to be like them,” he said, “you’re going to have to work more hours”. Then he laughed at me when I told him the university already got enough of my soul and said, “well you know the old saying: ‘if you’re not a socialist by the time you’re 20, you haven’t a heart; if you’re still one by the time you’re 40, you haven’t a brain’”. I still have a few years left to make the full transition.

All the images on work:life balance were cheesy. But I thought you'd be impressed by this photo of Brian McNeill playing the double-kneck bouzouki
There are people at the university that I strongly feel don’t get paid enough to work more than their contracted hours. But that’s not me – I get paid plenty well enough. And it’s not that I don’t feel passionate about (most of) what I do, or find myself enjoying thinking about it when I’m running or climbing hills, or sometimes get so engrossed in it that I’m still at my desk way past home time. I just think there should be more to life than work. That my life, and work, are both better for there being more to life than work.

I know there are many, many people working in public health research (and in lots of other areas) who work more than their contracted hours. In fact, my contract is a little vague about what my ‘contracted hours’ might be. Sometimes it seems like working all the time is the only way to be successful – somehow ‘good’ means ‘lots’. There seems no way to do everything that you want, or have, to do without working all the hours.

Academia is inherently a competitive venture. There is no absolute benchmark of good enough – it’s only ever relative to what other people manage. When one person starts churning out twice as much as anyone else by working longer and longer hours, it puts pressure on the rest of us to do the same. To keep up. Before you know it, you feel guilty every Sunday afternoon you don’t spend at your laptop.

But I have also come across well respected, and undoubtedly successful, academics who tell me how important it is to them not to start work before 8.30am, and not to leave the office after 6pm. Not just because it makes their lives better, but because this is the role model they want to be to those around them. These are not people who are doing sneaky work at home that they don’t let on about. They just seem to be focused in what they agree to do, to do it efficiently, and then to go home and do something else.

It is this type of person that I really want to be like. For me, the challenge is the focus and efficiency, not finding the energy to stay at my desk until midnight – although I would also struggle with that. Every Sunday afternoon that I spend at my laptop I feel that I have failed. I promise myself that next week I will focus more and be more efficient. I list the ways that I waste time and the things I should never have agreed to do. Instead of feeling guilty when I’m not working, I feel guilty when I am.

You can’t ever win.