Tuesday 24 September 2013

For my holidays, I went to....

Posted by Jean Adams

This blog is supposed to be about doing public health research. In essence, work-y stuff. Sometimes it is a bit tangential. But, you-know, it can be hard keeping up the work prattle week in, week out. So this post is about my holidays. Feel free to nod off whilst I work through my slides at an excruciatingly slow rate. But please try and snap back to life for the last paragraph, where there’s a work-y punch line.

This year, rather on a whim, we spent our summer holidays mostly doing the GR54 (GR=Grand RandonneeFrench long-distance footpath). We did the GR20 a few years ago. I was cruising around outdoor-y websites trying to think of a summer holiday thing to do that satisfied partner’s ‘somewhere sunny’ requirement with my ‘somewhere hilly with something to do’ requirement and read that the GR20 in Corsica was the hardest trek in Europe. Jeez, I thought, how hard can a trek be? I mean, doesn’t ‘trek’ just mean ‘long walk’ done by people who use those telescopic trekking pole thingies?

Day 10 - walking out from Refuge de la Muzelle (photo: Martin White)
So off we trundled to Corsica, took the train to our start point, bundled out of our hotel at about 0930 – pretty early for a holiday day, I reckon – and nearly died on the trek up to the first hut which we finally arrived at sometime approaching 1900. Yep. Pretty hard.

When I say we ‘did’ the GR20. I mean we did the northern 9 days of the full 15 day trip. But I’ve heard it’s the harder section (yes, I’m competitive outside work too)...

After a rather humbling first day, we grew to love the GR20. Corsica’s mountains are fab – rugged, fragrant, warm, pretty empty when we went. So when someone suggested that we do the GR54 around the Ecrins massif in the French Alps (touted as the hardest trek on mainland Europe), it sounded like it might be just right.

Over 10 days, we walked 176km, ascended (and descended) more than 12,800m, and consumed more tartes aux myrtilles and cafe crème than was probably sensible. We stayed in little private hostels and mountain huts and carried as few pairs of clean pants as we thought we could get away with (one on, one being handwashed/dried, one for emergencies). French mountain huts are, by the way, an outstanding example of just how well the French do everything hospitality - there is often no, or minimal, electricity and luke-warm showers if you’re lucky, but dinner will include a choice of wine and a cheese course.

I find this sort of thing all very restful. There is nothing to do apart from get up, pack your bag (no need to choose what to wear if following a strict underwear rotation system), follow the signs for seven hours, and then let someone else cook you a mammoth meal. Sure ‘follow the signs’ can be quite physically demanding. But there is little active thought required. Ponder over what the shepherd’s do in the winter, consider the tenacity of the little rock flowers blooming at 2500m, try and bag the best mures sauvage before your partner does.

The GR54 was not busy in late August. We met people on the trail every day, but not loads of them. We met a few other GR54-ers in the huts, but they were all following different schedules from us so there was none of that becoming part of mass group thing you sometimes get on popular multi-day routes. We chatted routes, and huts, and schedules, and weather with people. But one of my absolute favourite things about trekking is that we never once chatted work.

At work I am Jean Adams, Senior Lecturer in Public Health at IHS/Fuse/Newcastle. This label precedes almost everything I do. It, inevitably, colours what others think of both me and what I say, do and write. On the trail I am almost entirely anonymous. No-one cares what I do. Mostly they don’t care what I’m called either. But if they do, I have long since given up on trying to convince French people that a girl might be called Jean. All I am is Jeanne l’Ecossaise.

Thursday 19 September 2013

When is a sermon a knowledge translation message?

Posted by Avril Rhodes

I used to think I moved in two different worlds, especially on Sunday mornings, at that wobbly moment contemplating my sermon one final time before delivery, in the relative privacy of the vestry. Straightening my surplice (from J Wippell & Co who, by coincidence, make clerical and academic robes for some Universities) – and nothing could seem further from Fuse-land. 

Is it all preaching to the converted? 
Not so. Sermons get written, re-written, researched, laced with contemporary references and re-checked, and then they get delivered to the converted. Seminars get written, re-written, researched, laced with contemporary references and re-checked, and then they get delivered to those who know the topic already. Churches are probably the last place to find the non-Christian enquirer. Seminar rooms are probably the last place to find the non-academic enquirer. And yet we still invest time and effort in both, for good reasons of feeding our minds, and indeed souls. But it’s not outreach and we know it in both cases. 

So, we work on ‘church in the local’ (hiring a room in the pub to have a good open debate without the theological jargon) or Café Fuse (a very similar idea coming soon). We aim to join lots of local community groups (in the parish), or gain entry to meetings of key decision makers (in local government) to persuade those gracious enough to receive us on the other side of the table that it is worth asking Fuse. In both worlds we look hard for opportunities to exhibit and present ourselves, in one case a stand at the wedding fair, and in another a stall at a health conference. 

We do all of this because a direct conversation outside our usual environment beats the institution, a joint project trumps a single track approach, and, above all, we’re both in the field of behaviour change at population level with a long time horizon, as Jesus said in the now lost Gospel of St John (Snow). Medieval buildings with stained glass windows that people last visited years ago (I refer to the older University as well as ecclesiastical buildings) are not necessarily the right place for the message – much as we might preserve them and their crusty occupants as national treasures.

Last Saturday, I went to a conference entitled, “How to share your faith” (led by Bishop John Pritchard, one of those Bishops who writes in a very accessible style, despite being Bishop of Oxford which surely is a job title that’s a passport to academic gatherings) – and it’s given me pause for thought. What would be the equivalent day for knowledge translation and public health? 

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Oh, stop your whining.

Posted by Jean Adams
I used to loath those consultants who told us medical students that 36 continuous hours on the ward and 100 hour working weeks never did them any harm, so the junior doctors of today should just stop their whining.

Sure stupidly long working hours might not have done the junior docs of the 1980s any lasting harm. But it certainly did their patients some harm and I’ve heard lots of stories of the short term damage such ridiculous working practices did to health and sanity. Really I thought those days were over, but apparently not.

Now that I have some responsibilities for earlier career staff and students, I am wary of becoming those loathsome consultants. For quite a while I would tell people who worked with me, quite truthfully, "well I don’t work at the weekend, so I don’t see why you should have to". This was sometimes accompanied by "I don’t think you get paid enough to work more than you’re paid to". 

I still try really hard not to work at the weekend. But I’m not as good at is as I used to be. I increasingly find myself turning on my laptop in the evening because there’s just a little job (more often jobs) that I have to do before the meeting(s) tomorrow to avoid being totally unprepared.

I think I sometimes work too many hours. Not all the time. But some weeks, and I don’t get a chance to slack off the other weeks to make up for it. My contract helpfully doesn’t specify how many hours I should work – just that I should get my job done – so it’s hard to be sure about this. I just sometimes get the feeling that there is too much work in my life. But I get paid well, I knew that this was coming when I signed up for the job, and there are certainly other people who work more than I do.

What bothers me is that my increasing working hours seem to be accompanied by decreasing sympathy for other people’s work:life balance. I still say that stuff about working the hours you’re paid for and if you can’t fit it in, we need to think about getting some help, but somehow it doesn’t feel so convincing. Genuinely, it isn’t that convincing – I am getting worse and worse at convincing myself to work that way.

The very worst thing is that I am starting to resent the people who I think aren’t pulling their weight. The people who say they’re too busy to help out, who I know aren’t as busy as me. Jeez. Who am I to judge whether other people are too busy to help out? When did I stop thinking that ‘too busy’ can mean all sorts of things that has nothing to do with working at the weekend?

Tell me I haven’t become one of those loathsome consultants.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Stealing the spotlight from hot chocolate research and the royal baby

Posted by Katie Haighton

It seems there’s always a bit of interesting research in the news; so why isn’t it mine? I thought the media might pick up on my extremely important and immensely interesting research by osmosis with all those keen journalists reading my really enthralling academic papers published in scholastic journals; but for some reason it’s just never really happened. Why not, I wonder, when the media run stories about drinking hot chocolate to prevent Alzheimer’s disease? Well, that’s because I’ve never actively gone about publicising my own work, so when my latest academic paper was accepted for publication I contacted our press office and asked if they would do a press release; and they said yes!

Photo of me looking very serious on TV
Ok, so it wasn’t quite that simple. We had to come up with a key message that would attract the attention of the press while making sure we mentioned everyone involved and gave everyone an opportunity to provide a quote (mainly so they could get their name in the newspaper!). We needed to time the press release so that it coincided with the publication of our academic paper but also so that it didn’t arrive at the same time as the far more interesting and important royal baby! And then I was told that I needed to be available too! Now this is where I would usually, and quite willingly, hand the fame to someone else. It’s one thing writing about your research but quite another answering a barrage of questions, live, in front of hundreds, possibly thousands, of other people. However I’ve come to understand how important it is for us academics to leave our ivory towers and make our research accessible to others, so this time I bit the bullet and made myself available for interviews.

In the end the royal baby arrived in plenty of time for the press to give the birth full coverage before our paper was finally published and our press release went out. That first day I spoke to the press office regularly as we worried about whether there was going to be a delay in publication of our paper and if we’d included everyone we should and I was beginning to think I’d not have very much to do until the interviews came flooding in. My first interview was for a local radio station and was a recorded piece which would go out the following day – I think your first interview is never your best but it got me warmed up for three more which came in that afternoon and time to prepare for live interviews for the following morning.
It was a bit of a shock to me that I’d have to be up and ready for my first interview before 7am but in the end it wasn’t difficult as I couldn’t sleep anyway! As I brewed my tea that morning (maybe I should have had hot chocolate instead!) I Googled my research and was pleased to see there was already a healthy coverage in the media.  Then the first radio station rang to say my story had been moved to the headline and so could I go live early? The next 48 hours were a whirlwind of TV and radio interviews as my research made national newspaper headlines and even went international. Yes, apparently I actually do carry out really important and immensely interesting research! In the end I spoke about my work to many journalists over a number of hours and on most occasions they only used a 15 second sound bite to illustrate their own take on my work however I’m happy that my research has been recognized by others and that my academic paper has been read by many. Most importantly of all, however, is that my Mum can finally say that she’s seen me on the telly!

Tuesday 10 September 2013

On potty training a black swan. Confession time.

Posted by Heather Yoeli

Few of my writings have generated as much feedback as the January blogpost about my daughter’s refusal to use either potty or toilet. To those who have asked whether she is now potty trained… yes (phew – and thanks for asking). To those who have asked whether their advice to me at the time was helpful… no (sorry – but thanks for trying). Neither the iconic Poo Goes to Pooland, nor its beautifully-illustrated Hebrew counterpart, nor decorating the potty with Peppa Pig stickers, nor chocolate buttons, nor anything else at all helped. She simply decided that she was going to poo in the toilet, her nappy mat applied for its state pension, and all was well. In retrospect, I can now see that, whether for physiological or developmental or her own personal reasons, she simply hadn’t been ready before.

Black Swan, by Robyn Carter
Within public health, we try to look at all aspects of health and wellbeing and development at a population or community or global level, rather than as it affects individuals. We therefore know the pitfalls of trying to create individualised targets merely from statistical norms. And so, in trying to get my daughter potty trained before the arbitrary age of 3 before which potty training is ‘supposed’ to happen, I was inflicting upon her tiny posterior a premise that is scientifically a bit dodgy. I do sometimes wonder whether there’s a preponderance of pushy parenting coming from public health and academic types. Both public health and academia as a whole are competitive fields, and it tends to be those who are by nature a little bit competitive who enjoy public health academia. Or maybe I’m making excuses for myself. Maybe it’s just me. (Hint: do leave a comment…)

Nevertheless, a new challenge awaits. My son had just turned two, and with it has gained the delightful habit of undoing his trousers whilst shouting wet wet wet at the cat. Unless he begins to show signs of any development delays or health challenges requiring of extra help, I aim to tackle his whole potty training experience without attempting a single literature search for valid and robust current public health data on the age at which children achieve full bladder and bowel control. However crap (or damp) things become, it’ll be an interesting challenge…

Thursday 5 September 2013

Aim high, or just get it out there and move on?

Posted by Jean Adams

So shall we talk impact factors?

Every peer-reviewed journal that has been around for a few years has an impact factor. It’s a number (calculated to three decimal places!) that reflects the average number of times papers published in the journal are cited by other papers in peer-reviewed journals.

In an unthinking world, there is an assumption that the higher the impact factor of a particular journal, the ‘better’ the journal is. From there, it’s easy to start to think that the papers published in journals with higher impact factors describe ‘better’ research and that the people who write papers published in journals with higher impact factors are ‘better’ researchers.

It's just much easier to judge who's 'best' in some areas than others
Of course you can see that such a simple metric is never going to be a particularly accurate reflection of the quality of either the research or the people writing the research. Lots of people have written lots of things about how bad a job impact factors do of assessing quality. They’re even pretty poor at predicting the number of citations any particular paper will get. And who said that citations are a good marker of how good a paper (or the research it describes) is anyway?

I know all of this. I understand it. Yet I still care about impact factors. I still want to submit my papers to journals with high impact factors and it frustrates me when my papers get rejected by the ‘best’ journals and I have to do the long, boring job of trying the next ‘best’ journal, then the next ‘best’, and then the next ‘best’. Which is not to say that every paper I’ve ever published has been rejected by The Lancet (certainly none have been published there). But that I do want the best possible for each of my little paperlings.

Lately I’ve been doing quite a lot thinking about this, wondering why I am so obsessed by playing the impact factor game that I know to be such a highly suspect marker of skill – as much ludo as chess. I guess some of it is vanity – if that’s what people are going to think makes me ‘good’, then I’ll do it because I definitely want them to think I’m ‘good’ (although, why do I care what those people who place such value in such a suspect number care?). Some of it is pure competitiveness – if it’s hard to do that, then I’m going to do it.

But I guess right at the very bottom of it all is the REF. The big ol’, not quite sure that we think that’s a particularly good marker of quality either, REF. I have to have four papers that are ‘good enough’ for the REF or to be submitted as an individual; I definitely want to be submitted (see above re vanity and competitiveness, but let’s also add in it’s sort of my job); and in the absence of other markers of quality, we seem to be relying pretty heavily on impact factors to decide what papers are ‘good enough’. Not entirely. But quite a bit.

Whilst many of the people I work with are similarly fairly obsessed by the impact factor game. Not all of them are. Some people, who I have lots of respect for, reckon it’s a bit fat waste of time (and morale) to try your paper in a high impact factor journal, get it bounced, reformat it for the next one, get it bounced blah blah blah. They laugh and say ‘oh just get it out and move on’. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that these tend to be the sort of people who have loads of ‘good enough for the REF’ papers anyway. But I am starting to wonder if what I need to be doing is not constantly ‘aiming high’, but developing a better sense of what papers are worth ‘aiming high’ for.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

How to establish a reputational yardstick

Posted by Heather Yoeli

As anyone who has been around any university research department recently will probably have realised, the general atmosphere within academic circles is, erm, interesting. The deadline for submissions towards the next REF is swiftly approaching, and preparations are escalating towards a level of intensity last seen amongst those who trusted Harold Camping’s prediction that the world would end on May 21 2011. I do hope that none of my colleagues will take offence at such an analogy. But the 2014 REF does remind me of Harold Camping in that its rules, like the reasoning behind his prophecies, appear to the novice eye as rather convoluted.

Harold Camping predicts the end of the world
Basically, the REF’s main website explains itself as follows;

The REF will be undertaken by the four UK higher education funding bodies. The exercise will be managed by the REF team based at HEFCE and overseen by the REF Steering Group, consisting of representatives of the four funding bodies.

The primary purpose of the REF is to produce assessment outcomes for each submission made by institutions:

· The funding bodies intend to use the assessment outcomes to inform the selective allocation of their research funding to HEIs, with effect from 2015-16.

· The assessment provides accountability for public investment in research and produces evidence of the benefits of this investment.

· The assessment outcomes provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks.

The REF is a process of expert review.

Is it just me, or is that not entirely clear? I mean, I can sort of surmise that it’s something to do with telling universities how good their research is and might involve some cash prizes, but I’m not sure that the phrase ‘establish reputational yardsticks’ is one I’d use in everyday conversation. In the public health context, I think a reputational yardstick probably has something to do with the apparent REF buzzword of impact – that is, making our research relevant beyond academia and beneficial to the wellbeing of society and doing much of what we’re doing anyway with what we call knowledge exchange – but still, it’s a rather clumsy phrase. I would hate to trip over a reputational yardstick in the corridor.

My worry for the 2014 REF is that, as much is it will have achieved a great deal in encouraging universities and their researcher staff to work hard and to do their very best, its so-called impact may be limited by the way in which few people who are not themselves university researchers really understand enough about the REF itself. In my own completely unqualified opinion, the HEFCE might want to consider how to give the next REF a reputational yardstick as something just a little less impenetrably confusing.