Thursday, 28 July 2016

Making an impact with your research: may I have this dance?

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Manager, Teesside University

Early career researchers from the five UK Public Health Research Centres of Excellence met recently (14-15 July) in Norwich to discuss their research and bust out a few moves on the dancefloor at the conference dinner. While some career-focused academics (the conference theme was about career transitions) might frown upon this behaviour, the policy and practice partners participating in the conference made it very clear that, for them, dancing is a key move in public health, particularly if you want to make an impact with your research. 

Before you don your dancing shoes, let me explain what keynote speaker Jim McManus, Director of Public Health at Hertfordshire County, was talking about. He argued that knowledge exchange is not really a science or even an art but very much a dance: a dance between researchers and policy makers about the use of research evidence. To complete this dance successfully and get evidence used in commissioning, both partners need to follow certain steps. However, learning the steps (science) or performing them perfectly (art) is not sufficient: it requires instinct and feel for where you are in the dance and why you are doing it.

You need to understand who you are engaging with and why they are the best partner to talk to. How would you like them to use your evidence and why would it be of interest/ value to them? In other words, as a researcher it is not enough to present your partner with the latest evidence. You need to know when and how to use your evidence and this cannot be gleaned from an internet profile page or academic paper, but is based on an ongoing relationship with policy makers. As the context and process in which evidence is useful changes constantly it is an important skill for researchers to be able “to go with the music”. 
For instance, if a public health commissioner is challenged in a council meeting by an elected member about the lack of progress in bringing down local childhood obesity, it is of limited use to the commissioner to cite a research paper on the complexity of obesity and the need for a long-term, multi-pronged approach, particularly in times of austerity. A better move could be to signpost the commissioner to an existing two-page evidence brief about the most effective way to reduce inequalities in childhood obesity. A more elaborate dance routine could involve suggesting an action research project to identify how to make better use of existing services in a more integrated way, based on in-depth conversations with elected members and other service providers and users.

To get a better feel for the music, Jim McManus emphasised the need for emotional engagement between researchers and policy makers. A heart-to-heart helps you feel the steps and allows you to adapt your steps based on where you are going. This might sound difficult and un-academic but, given what I witnessed at the evening do, the participants at the UKCRC16 conference in Norwich proved that they were more than happy to move around the dancefloor with our public health partners, given the right music.

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