By Rosemary Rushmer
Researchers are constantly being challenged to demonstrate that their research can make a difference and has impact. Practice and policy partners are similarly challenged to demonstrate that their decisions and activity are informed by the evidence base. It sounds like all we need to do is join the two groups together – simple, right?
In Fuse (the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, www.fuse.ac.uk) we wanted to do exactly that. We wanted to supply the evidence that end-users said they wanted (supply and demand), and make it easy for them to access and use research evidence.
Yet, we knew that current approaches to supplying evidence (briefs, guidelines, publications) do not work as well as we once thought they did. It needed a re-think…
We asked policy and practice partners in the north-east of England what their actual research needs were. They were quite clear – they wanted a rapid response research facility that could supply timely and relevant evidence to address pressing practice and policy questions. They were looking for an easy access portal, and one-stop shop, between them and all the researchers who could help across the five north-east universities (Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland and Teesside), and perhaps beyond.
So far so good, everyone wanted the same thing: to do applied research and to apply that research locally to benefit the lives of local people. How difficult could it be?
Actually – pretty tricky. Multiple process and system barriers became evident – things just aren’t set-up to make it easy to carry out responsive research in the UK. Entrenched systems created around different agendas (the research excellence framework, academic career pathways, research & development governance and research ‘sign-off’ requirements, and procurement & commissioning processes) proved significant challenges.
Essentially researchers have two options:
- either they can try to make a difference by building trusting relationships with practice and policy partners, which takes time, and work iteratively on topics important to practice and policy; or,
- they can consider what brings kudos and builds academic careers, namely large-scale research and grant funding, high profile publications and a clear focus on a topic of their choice. Everything that responsive research is not.
Indeed, most researchers are employed on specific projects and have little or no allocated time to work responsively.
Hmmm? Therefore, some senior academics we talked to described responsive research as ‘career suicide’. Were they right? Too difficult, time to go home?
In the translational spirit of Fuse, we decided to try to make a responsive research facility work. It took two years to:
- gain agreement across the willing researchers in the five north-east universities to provide input (despite no contractual obligations)
- nurture continued practice and policy engagement (despite delay)
- use practice and policy partners’ expertise to establish workable and sustainable ways of contracting (despite different procurement procedures in each partner’s organisation and varying costing structures across the universities)
- get partners to try (but not overwhelm) the fledgling facility and help it grow; and,
- launch the facility (despite reputational risk to Fuse if it failed).
As a result, AskFuse (www.fuse.ac.uk/askfuse) was launched in June 2013. Since its inception more than 240 inquiries (quick questions, brokering links, small evaluations, literature syntheses, help with analysis of routine data) have been received and over 50 collaborative projects undertaken in co-production across academe and practice and policy. From these small studies several larger scale projects have been undertaken, such as PhD studies and National Institute for Health Research funding applications.
Anecdotally, AskFuse is seen as an exemplar of good practice in collaborative working. However, none of the system barriers described above have changed. In fact, the barriers changed AskFuse. They were not simply barriers to be straddled, they actively shaped what was possible in addressing the knowledge-to-action gap.
If the impact agenda is to thrive in the UK and elsewhere, there is a challenge to universities, funders and governments to think about:
- what is rewarded within academic careers (applied research, not just certain publications and grant income)
- what is funded (not just projects, but cross sector collaborations for longer periods of time)
- what is reported on (impact, co-production, relevance and usefulness of findings not just publications and grants)
- the establishment of intermediary organisations that straddle sectors to enable and legitimise closer working.
Do you have similar experience to share?
To find out more:
Rushmer, R., Shucksmith, J. and The Fuse Knowledge Exchange Group (KEG). (2016). AskFuse origins – providing the research that public health practice and policy partners say they need. Evidence and Policy, December 2016. Online: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/ep/pre-prints/content-evp_108;jsessionid=1ai7l44cx15uy.x-ic-live-03
Thanks to Evidence and Policy for making this paper free to access until 10 August 2017.
To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal Evidence and Policy:
Biography: Rosemary Rushmer is Professor of Knowledge Exchange and Public Health at Teesside University, United Kingdom (UK) and Deputy Director of Fuse (the centre for translational research in public health), one of the UK centres of excellence in public health research, where she leads the Translational Research programme. She is currently a member of the Health Research Board in Eire and the research board of the French National Cancer Institute. She was instrumental in establishing the rapid responsive research facility ‘AskFuse’.