Wednesday 21 December 2011

Student bingo

Posted by Jean Adams

Every year I supervise a number of undergraduate and postgraduate students doing project work. Mostly, I love this part of my job. I love students’ enthusiasm. I love seeing them progress from unsure about everything, to confident expert. And I love amusing myself by playing student bingo.

Student bingo can be played alone or in groups.

Here's how to play:

1. Choose your student.

2. Write a list of the top five rooky errors associated with your student's project. These might include: failing to back up the only copy of a thesis in progress; failing to plan enough time for obtaining ethics permission; failing to learn how to use EndNote early on leading to a referencing melt-down on the day before submission etc.

3. Warn your student early that they are likely to make these errors.

4. Check frequently that these errors have not been made.

5. Tick off the errors as they are made.

6. Never, ever express disappointment that your student has made an error that you expressly warned them about (remember the supervisor = mother rule).

7. If playing in a group, the first supervisor to tick off all their errors and stand up in the middle of the open-plan office shouting "STUDENT BINGO" is the winner.
Great Yarmouth bingo


Posted by Jean Adams

In my experience, there are two possible plans of action in that moment between drinks and dinner when everyone hovers around the table wondering if there is a seating plan.

Plan A is to actively manoeuvre to ensure that you sit next to the most interesting people.  Plan B is to hang back and grab the last seat.  Obviously Plan B is the introverts preferred method.  But there is a real risk that everyone else is following Plan A.  Meaning that Plan B’ers find themselves, by default, left sitting next to the very least interesting people. 

The other evening I found myself at a work related dinner where I hardly knew anyone.  I knew the people I probably didn’t want to sit next to.  So I manoeuvred away from them.  But I took my chances with the rest.

I was rather taken aback when, around 20 minutes into the dinner, the man on my right said in a rather loud voice: “Well, I used to be on the monetary policy committee, you know.  I disagreed with Mervyn King about almost everything.” 
Mervyn King
You what?  How did I, a university lecturer in public health, find myself sitting next to an economist who used to be on the MPC?  I am still not quite sure what the answer to this question is.  But it seemed unlikely that it would happen again.  So I decided to find out what I could.

I guess we are all victims of surrounding ourselves with opinions that agree with our own.  I feel quite privileged to work in a professional arena where my political opinions are mainstream, and are almost part and parcel of the job.  It’s nice to work somewhere where you feel your colleagues so strongly agree with your worldview.

So it was a bit of a shock to be at a work dinner with an economist who turned out to be just a little bit to the right of me.  It turned out he lives in New Hampshire – a beautiful part of the world, where the state motto is “Live free or die”.  They don’t have sales tax or state income tax in New Hampshire.  This means there are limited public services.  But it’s okay – because “there’s a market”.  You need your garbage collected – “there’s a market”, you need the snow swept from your drive – “there’s a market”, you need some health care – “there’s a market”.

“So what do the people in New Hampshire who can’t afford those things do?”  I asked.

“They live in Vermont.”

Apparently a new liberal era has washed in and the students are trying to get “Live free or die” replaced with the much more politically correct “Live free or move”.

The application system

Posted by Jean Adams

I knew it was going to be bad so I ignored it.  But you can’t ignore important things forever.  Yesterday, I finally plucked up the courage to take a good, hard look at the form.  It was every bit as bad as predicted.

I am preparing a grant application for a national health research funding body.  It is endless.  There is the on-line form (34 pages).  Then there is the detailed project description (20 pages).  Then there is the one page project timetable appendix.  Finally, there’s the summary flow diagram appendix.  You can understand the need for this last appendix.  It must be hard for the committee to get their heads around all the detail that they receive for each application.  What they need is a simple, graphical summary of the project.

It is possible that research grant giving bodies feel that only researchers who can negotiate complex application systems deserve funding.  It has also crossed my mind that research grant giving bodies are holding a secret competition to see who can devise the most fiendish system.

Our response?  Our response is to protest that we are scientists:  it is not our job to fill in difficult forms.  We must have support.

Ignoring the boxes that really only I can fill in, I start to make the rounds of the people who might be able to help with my form.

First stop, my secretary.  That sounds a bit grandiose.  Really, she is the secretary that I have a 20% share of.  Could she maybe input all the CV information for me and the other grant applicants?  Of course, but when you say put in details of everyone’s current grants, do you really mean all of the 21 grants that Prof. Important from London has running?  Sorry.  Yes.

Next, the finance officer.  Who is also doing a part-time PhD in Medical Ethics.  Sure, she can make a start on the numbers.  This says draft finance at the top, are there likely to be some changes?  Sorry.  Yes.

Then, right at the end, after the scientific summary and the lay summary, after the CVs of all applicants, and after the endless breakdown of exactly how much money we are asking for, there are the tick boxes.  Oooh.  My favourite bit – just tick a few boxes to indicate your ethnic group and your scientific discipline.  It’s so easy!

I print out the form to get a handle on what’s left to be done.

Right at the end there is a page for signatures.  They need signatures?  This didn’t show on screen.  How am I supposed to get signatures from colleagues all across the country just before Christmas?  


Posted by Jean Adams

Against my better judgement, I seem to have found myself leading a team developing a proposal for a call from the National Institute of Health Research on using incentives to encourage uptake of childhood vaccinations.

The application involves an on-line form with boxes for summary information on our project, CVs for each member of the team, and a detailed breakdown of the funding we are requesting.  There is also space to upload a detailed description of the research we are planning to do.

After spending far too much time searching through far too many guidance documents, I finally find what I am looking for: the detailed project description can be up to 20 pages.  Which means that the detailed project description should probably be at least 18 pages.  In the world of funding committees, blank space seems to be taken to imply blank brain.

So my next task is to draft 18-20 pages of detailed project description.

Somewhere else in the endless guidance I find suggested sub-headings.  Predictably, they are of limited relevance to the research that is being asked for.  An endless frustration in health research is that we are have to use systems designed from medical research – often drug trials – that just don’t fit what we do.

But I don’t have a degree in creative writing for nothing.  Actually, I don’t have a degree in creative writing at all.  Throughout my extensive, formal, higher education, I have been trained in writing concisely – in neat, legible, bullet points in medical records; in terse science-ese in journal articles.  No-one likes the written equivalent of verbal diarrhoea.  No-one except, perhaps, an NIHR funding committee.

The dream team

My colleague and I are planning on submitting an application to the National Institute forHealth Research in response to a call for proposals they have circulated on using incentives to increase uptake of childhood vaccinations.

But we two are merely a healthpsychologist and a publichealth academic .  NIHR always look for multi-disciplinary teams who bring the full range of knowledge and expertise needed to deliver on any particular project.  They like supporting junior researchers to develop their knowledge and skills, but they don’t like placing their trust in jack-of-all-trade research leaders.  They want experts.

The call requests an evidence synthesis on the effectiveness of incentives to increase childhood vaccinations and some qualitative work exploring acceptability.  By ‘evidence synthesis’ NIHR almost always mean a full-blown systematic review of published and unpublished literature.  So we are going to need an expert reviewer and perhaps a statistician to handle any meta-analyses.

Dr. Health Psychologist and I are both more experienced in quantitative, than qualitative, research.  To explore acceptability of incentives for vaccinations using interviews, we are going to need a social scientist with experience in interview methods.  We should also probably find someone who counts as an expert on community child health and perhaps someone who knows a bit about vaccinations!  Last but not least, we are going to need a public health policy wonk who can guide us through the practicalities associated with introducing what would be a significant change in current public health policy in the UK.

Over bleary eyed, Monday morning, coffee we draft out a list of our dream team.  Some of them our friends and colleagues who we hope will always want to work with us on new ideas.  Others are ‘big names’ – invariably from London.  The big name professors might want to work with us bright young things, but they might take a bit of encouragement.  NIHR will probably only fund one project on this topic and we have no idea how many other people around the country are thinking up dream teams of their own.  We have to move fast to get something drafted that we can send to potential collaborators to convince them to join our team – before someone else nabs them for their team.

Of course the drafting falls to me.  By the end of the week I have something scrappy that consists of more text highlighted in yellow for further discussion than bits I am sure of.  But it is something and I start to send it out.  Within a few hours I have had four positive responses.

With the dream team starting to take shape, the pressure is mounting.  There is no turning back now.

The call

Posted by Jean Adams

It’s Friday afternoon.  I am working at home and starting to go through the work-weekend transition.  Distracted by my twitter feed, I click through on a tweet from the National Institute for Health Research to their latest funding calls.  NIHR are one of the UK’s largest funders of health research and an important source of grants for developing and evaluating public health interventions.  But their application systems are notoriously long winded and each new application needs enthusiasm and stamina.  Obtaining an NIHR grant really is a marathon, not a sprint.
Geoffrey Mutai ran the fastest marathon ever in Boston 2011
As I wait for the page to load, I secretly hope there is not going to be anything remotely relevant to me.  I don’t need the extra work of another grant application right now.

I scan through the list of topics they are currently interested in.  Second on the list is “11/97 Parental incentives for increasingupdate of immunisations in pre-school children”.  As it’s Friday afternoon, my eyes and brain are beginning to disconnect.  I have to read the title of the call twice, but it really does say “incentives” not “interventions”.  I have just won a four yearfellowship to explore the use of financial incentives for health promotion, so incentives are my thing.  As I click through and wait for the details of the funding call to come up, I hope again that this is not going to be what I think it is.  I really don’t want to find something that I have to apply for.  My fellowship is starting next month and I want to get on with that, not get side-tracked by new grant applications.

The NIHR call is for work that is uncannily like the first 18 months of my fellowship programme.  They want an evidence synthesis of the effectiveness of incentive schemes for increasing uptake of childhood vaccinations.  Then some qualitative work exploring acceptability of this sort of incentive programme.  My fellowship doesn’t focus on childhood vaccinations, but it will start with an evidence synthesis of the effectiveness of health promoting financial incentives in general, followed by some qualitative work exploring acceptability.

My very first thought is to close the page and ignore it.  But I don’t.  I can’t.  I write a quick email to my incentives partner in crime asking if he’s seen the call and if he thinks we should go for it.

“Sure”, he messages back, “looks interesting and like we would be perfectly placed to deliver.  Let’s chat on Monday and get a team together.”

At least I still have my weekend.