Thursday 27 June 2013

Asking the right questions

These tweets from @sal_brown caught my attention a few weeks ago (the nature of Twitter is that they're listed here in reverse order):

I was reminded about them again at an event I went to last week to celebrate Sally Macintyre’s contribution to health inequalities research and policy. Amongst all the many other complementary things people had to say about Professor Dame Sally, one of the common factors seemed to be that she keeps asking the right questions.

I guess the explanation for the bloke on train incident is that he thought he was applying for a lecturer-as-in-teacher job, whilst the interview panel thought there was at least a bit of lecturer-as-in-researcher involved.

What these tweets and the comments on Sally Macintyre’s career leave me wondering is whether or not “research plans” and posing the right research questions are really the key to a successful research career.

Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed by all that it takes to be successful in research. You need grants, and papers, and conference presentations, and research students who submit good work on time, and to teach well enough that you aren’t slammed in feedback, and to do peer review for other people’s grants and papers and then maybe join an editorial board or research funding committee or both, and to make sensible contributions to your institute’s research strategy committee, and to do public engagement well enough that it’s not embarrassing, and to try and engage with policy enough that you have some sort of ‘impact’, and to do a bit of adminny stuff on the side.

And, and, and the list goes on. And what I really want is some way to get to the essence of what I really have to do. Otherwise I might just find it impossible to juggle everything. Getting a grant should lead to papers, and presentations and maybe some good students. Good papers and presentations lead to peer review requests. So maybe grants are the essence that I’m looking for.

I have come across people who have built a very respectable career on hardly any external research funding. They tend to be people who focus on secondary analysis – things that you can do pretty quickly yourself without much in the way of external expertise or support. Sometimes I’m jealous of these people – getting to play with Stata themselves, rather than just getting to look at other people’s output. Other times I wonder how limiting it must be to never be able to do anything that isn’t free. I love secondary analysis as much as (more than) the next person, but sometimes I want to do things that even the most inventive use of secondary data wont allow.

Either way, tho, whether you go for primary or secondary data, you are reliant on your research plans. So maybe it’s true, unless you have ideas for research, and original research questions you’re never going to get anywhere.

But what about all those people who have long and respectable careers but are rarely, if ever, principal applicants on grants? The career researchers, rather than academics, that our departments are all built on. These are the people who seem to know how to get things done. Yet they are not the sort of people who regularly lead grant applications. Do they need to have lots of great research ideas?

So maybe the right question here is not “what is at the heart of a successful research career?”, but “what do you mean by successful?”. Is that it?

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Research Career Pathways

Posted by Lynne Forrest

As I enter the final few months of my PhD, although I know I should be concentrating on writing up my thesis and getting it submitted on time, I have been somewhat distracted recently by thinking about what I’m going to do when it’s all over. It’s a difficult balancing act, finishing the piece of work that will allow you to move on to the next stage whilst simultaneously looking for that next opportunity, but I’m sure it’s one that most people working in research, at all levels, are familiar with.

I’m lucky in one respect in that I’m sure that I want to stay in academia. But it’s very disheartening to read endless articles about the surplus of PhD students and the bottlenecks that occur at each stage of the academic pathway. In fact, I think I’ve yet to read an article that promotes any positives of an academic career, although, as far as I can see, there are many. Perhaps because I’ve worked elsewhere I can definitely see that the grass isn’t greener. Yes, being a female academic with children is difficult but then so is being a professional female with children in any industry. The flexibility of academia can actually be a real advantage. The freedom of managing your own time and research and doing something you love shouldn’t be easily dismissed either.

The dreaded PhD surplus
I’m also lucky in that my PhD supervisors have been fabulously supportive and have found me funding that will allow me to analyse the cancer data that I didn’t have time to look at for my PhD and to write up any remaining papers from my thesis. It also looks hopeful that other funding will then become available to allow me to stay on at Newcastle and also write a Fellowship application so I can quickly move on from the temporary Research Associate (RA) route. And, unlike a lot of younger researchers who come straight in to a PhD after their undergrad degree, I have no illusions about how research and academia works. I don’t want to go down the endless RA-jobs route and although I’m not wholly convinced I have what it takes to be a ‘research leader’, I’m going to give it a go.

I know how things work as, in an irony that is not lost on me now, my previous job before my return-to-research mid-life crisis was as the Career Pathways Scheme Manager, a scheme that was being developed to help support researchers in their career management.

In this, a survey of RA attitudes to career development found that the majority of researchers did not want to become research leaders or academics, they just wanted to continue as RAs on a project, but without having to look for a new job every 3 years or so. The idea of the scheme was to develop a ‘third way’ so that the choice was not just between following the Fellowship-to-academic or RA paths but to offer a third option of becoming a Team Scientist, a specialist in their field, who was not an academic but held a permanent post. It was an admirable idea from Newcastle University but it didn’t take long to see the major flaw in the scheme as, apart from in a couple of cases, there was no funding for these posts.

I’m not sure what the answer to all this is. Without a system-wide change in the funding structure for research all the issues are going to remain. I fully understand why RAs who are constantly changing job and location become disillusioned and leave research. There’s undoubtedly a lot of stress and pressure. And yet, with optimism still intact, I’m prepared to give academia a go…

Thursday 20 June 2013

Go as you Please: Public health in the neighbourhood

Posted by Heather Yoeli

Living in nondescript surburbia between a miniature Tesco, a dodgy pub, a neighbourhood vet, a vast psychiatric hospital and an unexpected nature reserve, it makes life interesting. A couple of months back, an enterprising chap attempted to turn our abandoned local sub post office into what his planning application euphemistically termed a ‘hot food takeaway’. He did not succeed, mainly because of the hyperbolic nimbyism of residents alarmed that the proposed chippy might bring greasy elements into the hood and depreciate yet further local property values but partly (I hope, at least) because psychiatric inpatients are highly at risk of obesity and its associated diseases and therefore having a ‘hot food takeaway’ a chip’s throw away from the windows of their ward would therefore be a bit unhelpful. 

A few weeks ago, then, a new business not requiring of additional planning permission opened on the old sub post office site: the Go as you Please funeral service. It is a bold enterprise, to say the least. Rather than the twee lilies and discreetly blacked-out shopfronts of most funeral parlours, the Go as you Please proudly displays its coffins to the street. At the moment, they’re showcasing three coffins: an emo-gothic purple floral coffin with a mischievous nod to the archetypal lily, a faintly jingoistic Union Jack coffin which might save the need to drape a proud flag, and a photo-montaged Beatles one presumably for those wanting to have All you need is Love sung at their funeral. The semiotics of the storefront assaults us with the profoundly taboo and challenging questions: how would you choose to die, and how would you like to ensure that you are remembered? I wonder what my neighbours think. I know what they thought about the putative ‘hot food takeaway’, but I don’t know what they think about the funeral parlour. We live in a culture which can comfortably talk about both the ways in which we make our communities unhealthy and the things we do that are bad for our health, but it’s a culture nevertheless which rarely, if ever, speaks openly about death.

I wonder whether the presence of the Go as you Please coffins has dented the sales of alcohol, tobacco and confectionary at the local Tesco. If it were possible to submit a Freedom of Information request to a major supermarket chain, I might be tempted to ask them. More seriously, though, I wonder what impact the Go as you Please coffins have had upon the thoughts and feelings and behaviours of inpatients living on the nearby hospital wards. If I could produce a research proposal aimed at providing an answer which would sufficiently benefit the inpatients themselves, I might be tempted to approach their NHS Trust’s R&D people to discuss some sort of study. But to be honest, I’d be a bit nervous of raising the idea with my colleagues, simply because, again, ours is a culture far more comfortable with discussing obesity than death.

And if that reluctance to engage with death as the ultimate endpoint of sick environments and unhealthy lifestyles is a cultural tic embedded even within the social norms of public health, how does that affect what and how we choose to research?

Tuesday 18 June 2013

What’s in it for me?

Posted by Jean Adams

For quite a while I mulled on the idea of getting involved with the committee of a learned society. Initially I didn’t because I thought no-one would ever vote for a no-one like me. Then I worked out that they’re all pretty desperate for anyone and elections were more about process than manifestos or popularity contests. By which time I had decided it sounded like a lot of work, with nothing much in it for me.

I quite often find myself thinking, “nah...that sounds like a lot of work, with nothing much in it for me”. My interpretation of this is that I am a pretty lazy person with a strong selfish streak. But when I’ve talked about it to other people they say it is ‘being strategic’. From which I have concluded that other people justify their personal shortcomings to themselves by dressing them up in management speak.

It is all about me
But you know how these things happen. You have your annual appraisal and your appraiser says: “why don’t you get involved with a learned society?” And you can’t say straight out that you’re not going to do that because it’s sounds like a lot of work, with not much pay back and that really you’re a pretty lazy person with a strong selfish streak. So you put it down on your list of objectives for the next year. Then you get a e-newsletter from a society seeking nominations for committee members, and your appraiser forwards it to you as well so you can’t ignore it, and before you know it you find yourself as secretary of the UK Society for Something No-one’s Ever Heard Of.

I am General Secretary of the UK Society of Behavioural Medicine. If you’ve not heard of it, you should look us up. It’s a great society. The annual meetings are well organised (I have been to all but one of them), they attract high quality keynote speakers, the parallels are interesting, and the longer symposia and structured discussion sessions are well thought out and stimulating. But the very best thing about UKSBM is that Behavioural Medicine is such a wide topic area that a huge range of interesting people come to the meetings.

I have been General Secretary of UKSBM for eighteen months now. Although my tenure was preceded by a six month period of shadowing the out-going secretary, I think I spent at least the first 12 months of the job feeling like I was just on the right side of totally out of control. My first task was to organise an election for a new Membership Secretary. Which I pretty much made up as I went along. And then there was the minutes – of four committee meetings a year plus an AGM. I guarantee there is no-one in the world who hates writing minutes more than me.

To be honest, it’s not a lot of work. It is, by its nature, something that you have to be pretty well organised to do okay at. Which can sometimes be a challenge. It is possible that I have agreed to organise the 2015 annual scientific meeting, which I expect will be a lot of work. But right now I am doing my best not to think about that. I don’t get free conference registration. I do get one free lunch at a committee meeting and one free pre-conference dinner per year – which is nice. I have met a lot of people I would never have met before.

What I’d never anticipated was something that happened right in the middle of the last committee meeting I went to. There I was, trying my best to document the decisions that were being made, when I suddenly realised that I was enjoying myself. Not enjoying myself writing minutes. That’s never going to happen. But just enjoying myself having interesting discussions on how to make UKSBM better with a bunch of clever, interesting people. Which, I promise you, is more than enough ‘what’s in it for me’ to keep me doing it for at least another 18 months.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

They f*ck you up these parenting 'experts'

Posted by Bronia Arnott

Oliver James, author of They f*** you up: How to survive family life, spoke at the Hay Festival recently criticising modern parenting as too 'parent-led'. He said that infant’s needs should be responded to immediately and children should be given a sense of control for optimal development.

As someone who has studied parenting styles in infancy, the effects of infant-led parenting on breast feeding continuation, and the role of parental representations on attachment security in infancy you might think I would be nodding my head in agreement with him.

You would be wrong.

Instead I was doing this:

Thanks to @RachelStocker for bringing this gif to my attention

Firstly, because I think James is misguided in what being a ‘child-led’ parent is all about. He talks about responding “immediately” to infants, but responding quickly does not equate to responding sensitively. You can imagine a scenario where a parent responds quickly to a crying baby by shouting at it; the response is immediate but few would consider it to be very 'child-led'. Moving on to consider older children, James thinks that we should ‘love-bomb’ them. This ridiculous-sounding term apparently involves taking children away for a one-on-one weekend of activities directed by the child. That’s great, I’m all for fostering children’s sense of agency, but what happens when your child requests that you go to Disney World when you have been saving for weeks just to buy them some new school shoes?

The second problem that I have with what James had to say is his blatant disregard for scientific evidence. There is evidence out there which concludes that infant-led parenting and that treating your child as an individual with a mind of their own have positive effects. However, there is no evidence for what James specifically proposes. Unlike other scientists and researchers who actually need evidence to support our ideas, if you are Oliver James apparently you just announce it to the media and claim that you are far too busy and “don’t have time to muck about doing intervention studies”. 

You know Oliver, I feel your pain – I’m a busy working mum. It might seem like a lot of a hassle having to go through ethical approval, research governance, piloting, and assessing whether your intervention is effective. However, that is the way that research works. If I have a hypothesis then I am expected to test it, and then to publish my findings for scrutiny by others. I need to have evidence of efficacy, feasibility, and acceptability of any interventions I propose, not just anecdotes from parents who have emailed me to tell me that they think that I am right.

This brings me to the final point. James talks about 'parenting' but when you dig a bit deeper what he is really talking about is mothers. It is mothers who "should respond immediately" and what children really need is "a weekend with their mothers". Do fathers not have some role to play in this? Is parenting solely the domain of women? Does James not have anything to say about men? Actually he does have a lot to say about men. He says that men are “unpleasant, psychopathic, narcissistic, and Machiavellian”. He argues that we live in a society in which women are to blame for wanting to be like men and to beat mean at their own game. A game which clearly doesn’t involve love-bombing their children…

I disagree with what James had to say as a parent, as a scientist and as a woman.

But, I’m not writing this because I disagree with what he has to say. I can choose not to read any other articles by him. Instead I feel compelled to write this because there are many other parents out there who will read his comments. I’m not overly concerned that they might go out and ‘love-bomb’ their kids; maybe James is right and it “wouldn’t do any harm”. What I am concerned about is that parents are constantly overloaded with conflicting ‘advice’ from so called parenting ‘experts’. James is not alone in providing unsubstantiated ‘expert advice’ on parenting - yes, I’m looking at you Susan Greenfield and also at you Gina Ford. 

Mothers and fathers trying to do their best for their children are constantly bombarded with all sorts of unsupported conjecture dressed up as science through the media. If parents are looking for information then why can they not be given evidence-based research rather than being exposed to the uncorroborated opinions of self-styled parenting gurus? Parenting is hard enough without trying to fight your way through pseudo-science pedalled by these so called ‘experts’.

This kind of parenting expert could really f*ck you off, if not f*ck you up.

All quotes in this post are taken directly from this article.

Thursday 6 June 2013

Who ya gonna call?

Posted by Mark Welford

I think it’s fair to say that those of us in public health all want to improve health and wellbeing and help reduce the gap between the least and most healthy in our society.

And that’s why Fuse exists - to tackle the major health problems people face, that prevent them leading longer and more fulfilling lives.

This mission is a two-way collaboration with our partners in public health and social care. But, we face a dilemma:

1) How useful is most research?
2) How many decisions in public health commissioning or service development are properly evidence based?

Or to massively simplify (I’m no academic):

1) Supply - there are researchers in universities waving around their academic papers shouting: “I wish my research would change the world!”
2) Demand - there are our partners in public health (often called policy and practice partners, although I’m not sure this really captures them) seated at their desks thinking: “I wish I had some evidence to inform my decision”.

At which point - spotting a potentially dangerous chasm - we have traditionally all looked to the skies for help. To the shout of: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Evidence-man (unmistakable ‘E’ on red underwear over blue tights), an academic might have flown in with even shinier evidence briefs (double entendre intended!) or an implementation ‘tool’ to rescue the situation.

Unfortunately our evidence superhero often hits the wall with a resounding ‘Thwaak!’ as his worked up implementation solution still fails to grab his practice partners and become part of their reality.

All too often research results take too long to get into practice or they aren’t as relevant or useful as they should be. Maybe we need to look at public health problems from a practitioner perspective and work collaboratively to define the sorts of research questions we should be asking and attempting to answer? Perhaps then the answers would be both relevant and pertinent to local circumstances.

And that’s why today we’ve launched askfuse, our new research and evaluation service with a single point of contact. Designed to respond to requests made by our partners working in public health and social care, we hope that it will help to find research solutions to address pressing local issues.

The aim is to provide a service that acts as a portal to broker access to expertise in the five North East Universities, provides useful, timely outputs, that are independent, high quality and in plain English, builds long term working collaboration to improve flow of evidence into practice, and works for the benefit of the health of local people.

Working with those people at the coal face, we’ll be able to evaluate services, review documents, analyse and interpret data, or collaborate on larger projects that establish new evidence.

Over a number of months Janet ShucksmithRosemary RushmerAvril RhodesRebekah McNaughton and I have been putting all the systems in place to ensure that the service (fingers crossed) runs smoothly but I won’t bore you with all that detail, just visit the askfuse webpages to find out more.

The Batphone is manned and - all being well - we will soon be travelling around the region in the BatCorsa.

We’ve even created an animation to help communicate the message about askfuse in an innovative and exciting way, which you can see premiered at the launch of askfuse during Fuse’s fifth birthday celebration today at Beamish Hall. Hope to see you there.

So to finish this post with a catchphrase spawned from another US multi-media movie franchise.

Who ya gonna call?

To find out how askfuse could help you, call 01642 342757, email, or visit the website

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Data collection

Posted by Heather Yoeli

What follows is the hypothetical transcript of a conversation I’ve had a few times recently:

COLLEAGUE Heather, hello! Where have you been for the last few months and why didn’t you reply to that email I sent round about the night out?

ME Hi! Sorry I’ve not been around. I’ve been busy with fieldwork with participants, and have been interviewing people for my PhD.

COLLEAGUE Great! So you’ve finally started data collection, then…

ME (awkward pause) Well, I’ve been interviewing people…

COLLEAGUE But that is data collection, surely. Have you begun data analysis yet?

ME (awkward pause) Ummm… but how’s your study going? Have you heard back from the Ethics Committee yet? And how’s your partner getting on with the new job?

Research participants or human beings?

Ever since I began this project, I’ve had a niggling and non-specific aversion to the term ‘data collection’ being used to describe my research activities. Sometimes, though, words reveal more than we realise.

The OED defines data as:

Facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis; the quantities, characters, or symbols on which operations are performed by a computer … things known or assumed as facts, making the basis of reasoning or calculation

Similarly, the FreeDictionary defines data as:

1. Factual information, especially information organized for analysis or used to reason or make decisions.

2. Numerical or other information represented in a form suitable for processing by computer.

3. Values derived from scientific experiments.

And the BBC’s GCSE Bitesize website provides an excellent explanation of the relationship between data and information and knowledge.

From these three sources, we could surmise the following:
  • Data is fact
  • Data is that which we collect for our research
  • Data is collected for analysis and for use 
  • Most of our thinking about data is informed by the quantifiable, and by our use of computers
Certainly, then, the concept of data collection as integral to the PhD process presents a challenge for PhD studies like mine, which seek to be as qualitative, as theoretical, as participatory, and as participant-led as possible. The term data collection presses the question of what we might be taking from participants, of what we might be doing with what they have given us, of what ownership of and control over what they have given us our participants might retain, and of therefore what responsibilities we might have towards them. As fellow human beings, my participants are more than simply pseudonymous nodes with attitude codes on an NVivo database.

What common terms in research, or in public health, make you uncomfortable?