Thursday, 2 July 2015

Collaborative research: agreeing to disagree?

Posted by Peter van der Graaf

Fuse sponsored a parallel session at the Faculty of Public Health conference last week in Gateshead, chaired by Professor John Ashton CBE, President, UK Faculty of Public Health. The session focused on the challenges and opportunities of collaborative research between academics, health practitioners and decision makers.

The four papers presented in the session outlined different challenges in collaborative research: Alyson Learmonth, reviewing Health and Wellbeing Strategies in the North East, highlighted the diversity in priorities between different areas, making it difficult to focus and combine resources across local authorities.

Silvia Scalabrini showed that, in spite of dedicated health economic support from academics to local public health teams in prioritising their investment and resources, the use of these formal tools was met with resistance by elected members who put a higher value on other sources of information, such as stories from residents.

I highlighted limits to collaborative working through a mismatch in timescales, funding and interests. For example, academics showing limited enthusiasm for applied research due to a lack of incentives within their institution, which put a higher value on high quality publications and research council funding.

Fuse Director Professor Ashley Adamson talked about the challenges in setting up data sharing agreements with different local authorities to access National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) data, in spite of positive support and demand for the research from local government.

Listening to these presentations one might wonder whether collaborative working is really possible. At the same time, each presentation offered examples of where it was achieved and made a difference. For instance, Alyson Learmonth's appreciative enquiry demonstrated common interests between Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) in giving each child the best start in life and in the social determinants of health, particularly interventions around education and housing.

Silvia Scalabrini highlighted the usefulness of the Portsmouth Scoring Card, developed by Austin, Edmundson-Jones, and Sidhu (2007)* for local authorities to prioritise their spending. I reflected on the value of responsive research services, such as AskFuse, to provide backstage negotiation spaces for what constitutes useful evidence. Professor Adamson discussed the benefits of matching data from the NCMP with local intelligence to increase the effectiveness of child obesity interventions and their evaluations.

I’m wondering where this leaves us? In spite of problems in setting priorities, even agreeing on the tool to do this, limits to willingness and capacity among academics and public health practitioners to collaborate on research projects, and barriers in data sharing once a project has been agreed, the different examples made it clear that not collaborating was simply not an option.

Public health practitioners have limited resources and lack the capacity to analyse and interpret data, while academics are increasingly required to demonstrate the impact of their research and lack an understanding of the context and processes in which evidence is used in practice. Working together is a must to ensure that public health can provide an answer to the questions it is currently being asked.

Moreover, the number of participants from academia and practice at the conference session, demonstrates that there is a clear appetite to work together on these issues as long as we are able to provide the conversation spaces for this.

*Reference. Austin, D., Edmundson-Jones, P. and Sidhu, K. (2007) Priority setting and the Portsmouth scorecard: prioritising public health services: threats and opportunities. Available at:

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