Thursday, 28 March 2013

Three questions

Posted by Jean Adams

Editor's note: Earlier this year, Heather Yoeli suggested a little quiz of three questions. This post is another entry for the quiz. If you want to play, just get in touch.

1. In an entirely hypothetical scenario in which time, money and skill were no object and you could research absolutely anything at all, what would you choose?
I am pretty sure that I am very glad that my research interests are inequalities in health and health behaviours, and food policy and marketing. I really don’t think that I would rather be doing anything else. But maybe that’s some sort of avoidance/denial problem. Together the general topics of my research encompass ensuring that people can be as healthy as they want to be, that society is fair, and that multinational capitalism is not allowed to ride roughshod over the health of the population. Obviously I am biased, but these seem important to me.

What sometimes dissatisfies me is not the topic of my research, but the day-to-day work that I do and the impact it has. When I am embroiled in public health research with very clear policy implications, I am jealous of the people who get to do data analysis all day. When I spend my days immersed in Stata, I get frustrated that I am playing intellectual games with data rather than changing the world. Whenever I try and change the world, I get frustrated by how hard it is and think that perhaps being an academic is not the right way to go about it. Perhaps I should be a politician? Or a teacher? Or maybe an outdoor ed instructor?

Maybe I should be an outdoor ed instructor?
2. If you could poach a piece of research from one of your colleagues, which and whose would you pick and why?
On the days that I am jealous of the data-fiends, I want a birth cohort of my very own to play with – and probably one bigger that the one I do have access to. But mostly I love the simple studies that tell a good story well. George Davey-Smith’s analysis of historical social inequalities in life expectancy – demonstrated by correlating length of life recorded on gravestones with height of memorial obelisk in Glasgow graveyards. Steve Cummins’ exploration of social differences in exposure to obesogenic environments – a study of the density of McDonald’s restaurants. Mark Petticrew’s analysis of tobacco industry documents exposing the manipulation of scientific agendas by the tobacco industry to deflect attention away from the harms of smoking. There are flaws in all of these pieces of work, and in all cases the true situation is much more complicated than depicted in the study, but I enjoy the simple exemplar that makes a valuable point well.

There is also a special place in my heart for the prospective cohort study of teaspoon disappearance.

3. If you could study and/or work at any university in the world, where would you go?
The answer to this question seems to depend on a combination of where I would most like to live, who  I would most like to work with, and which universities have I heard the least horrendous rumours about on working conditions and treatment of staff .

So working backwards, let’s start by just not talking about the rumours of universities who seem to have markedly different criteria for promotion to professor for men and women, who never issue contracts beyond three years, and who are so focused on REF returns they ditch anyone without four 4* papers.

Let’s move quickly on to who I want to work with. I only ever want to work with people who are fun, bright and enthusiastic. People who wont let me cut corners when I'm bored of a piece of work and want to move on. People who challenge me to think in new ways. People who keep me grounded in what really matters. I have lots of these colleagues at Newcastle and across Fuse. I suspect that universities attract them.

And finally, where do I want to live. I have always wanted to live nearer to the mountains. But I can only speak English and don’t feel this is likely to change soon. So the Rockies, the Appalachians, maybe the White Mountains, New Zealand, that sort of thing. I miss Scotland in a non-specific, it’s just the place that feels most like home, sort of way. So Edinburgh or Glasgow would also be fine – and even they are nearer my mountains than Newcastle. I guess in an ideal world, Boston or Vancouver – good universities, good mountains, haven’t heard any bad rumours, but haven’t gone searching for them either.

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