Friday, 28 July 2017

A week and a day in the life of an embedded researcher

Posted by Mandy Cheetham, Fuse Post doctoral Research Associate and embedded researcher with Gateshead Council Public Health Team

Standing to deliver my presentation at the UKCRC Centres of Excellence conference recently held at the Royal College of Physicians last week, I felt oddly out of place. I was describing my experiences of embedded research in a community centre in an estate characterised by high levels of poverty, health inequalities and persistently high rates of childhood obesity. The contrast between this setting and the auspicious environment of the RCP was marked. The lecture theatre represented an entirely different world.

Presenting at the UKCRC Public Health Research Centres of Excellence Conference

At the pre-conference dinner, I’d had lively discussions with researchers and practitioners from the four corners of the UK about different approaches to, and experiences of knowledge exchange and about advocacy. Presenters earlier in the day were clear that advocacy was not part of their role. And yet, it felt at the heart of my role as an embedded researcher as a way to affect change.

As my presentation began, photos of the community centre, the events and activities I’ve been involved in, beamed on to the enormous screen, and gave a flavour of the different worlds we inhabit as researchers. One of the slides showed a picture of the international athletics stadium near the estate where I’m based. I explained how during the research, local people said they didn’t feel the stadium was for people like them. Some had never been inside, despite growing up on the estate just across the main road.

Back at the community centre on Monday, I talked about the conference. I had invited the stadium manager for community lunch and was full of anticipation about the possibilities of exploring closer links. He arrived, chatted to community members and staff, and stayed 2 hours. He was really receptive and people shared plenty of ideas. It’s the start of a dialogue. Who knows where it will lead.

Working with the community to involve children in cooking and trying healthy options

I love this aspect of my job, the variety, the networking. The rest of my working week involved a focus group with the steering group of the community centre and another with year 4 children from the local school. My role as a researcher is many and varied. The organisation where I’m embedded, and the public health team who commissioned the research, have been extremely receptive and welcoming, open to scrutiny, feedback and learning. Collaboration requires multiple skills, which are not always taught or easily learned, including sensitivity, diplomacy, tenacity and assertiveness, recognising the nuances of the local context and existing relationships in place. Researchers can contribute by offering new perspectives and working alongside existing stakeholders as equal partners.

If we are to make progress in efforts to turn the tide on entrenched health inequalities, I believe we need to work differently as researchers. Embedded research offers opportunities to engage communities who would rarely volunteer to take part in formal university research projects. It involves co-producing public health research with communities and researcher users, sharing knowledge, identifying and generating solutions together, and including children and young peoples’ views as part of that, as experts by experience. As academics, we are not the experts. Children and adults who have participated in the research process are only too aware of what makes us fit and healthy and the constraints on their choices and decisions. The opportunities to act on that knowledge are limited by their environment and sometimes by the assumptions of others. As researchers, I believe we have a responsibility to challenge some of those limiting assumptions and collaborate with others working proactively in community settings to facilitate positive change where we can. By co-producing and combining different types of knowledge we can create meaningful impact, both in communities experiencing health inequalities and in auspicious academic lecture theatres.

Photo courtesy of the National Children's Bureau (NCB) report (p10): 'Working together to reduce childhood obesity' authored by Emily Hamblin, Andrew Fellowes and Keith Clements (May 2017)

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