“Tomorrow I’m with the brainy people”

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If you are a health researcher within an academic environment how does the title of this post resonate with you? How do you feel about being described as one of the brainy people? A sense of pride or perhaps discomfort? Maybe a mixture of both? If I go on to explain that this statement was made by a clinician recounting what she told her colleagues the day before she spent time in a University research environment how do you feel now? Comments like these always make me feel uncomfortable because two years ago, when I worked in academia full time, I would have been perceived as one of the ‘brainy people’. Hmmm……….

If you are a healthcare professional reading this and have ever combined postgraduate studies or research with your clinical practice what did you tell your clinical colleagues about the time you spent at the University? What comments or responses did you receive from your colleagues about what you are doing? If you are a healthcare professional with no connections to a University how do you perceive health researchers? Of course the comment was made partly in jest but there were many smiles and nods of agreement from the rest of the group, who were all in similar positions, when this comment was made.

In a different workshop an analogy used by a service manager to describe her concerns about developing links with her local University was the difference between eating at home where everything is familiar and comfortable, a place where you know the ‘rules’ and feel confident and then stepping into a highclass restaurant with multiple layers of knives, forks and spoons where the ‘rules’ are less familiar and there is a concern about embarrassing yourself.

We embarked recently upon an early morning walk which started shrouded in mist. An erie experience walking across a familiar landscape feeling slightly disorientated, knowing that all of the usual landmarks were there somewhere, the honking of geese audible overhead but not visible, the swirling mist showing glimpses of the familiar as it began to drift and lift. An experience which, in light of the above conversations, resonated with me and started me pondering. I have heard variations on this theme too many times not look for the truth which resides within.

What do such conversations tell us about the perception of health researchers from a clinical perspective and what do they tell us about the cultural shift that is required to truly embed research within the NHS? Given that the majority of healthcare professions undertake their training within a University environment what is it that makes this terrain feel so unfamiliar and shrouded in mystery when the focus shifts from clinical education to clinical research? Why is a conversation or meeting with a ‘researcher’ a cause for concern? Why is there some kind of implicit assumption about differing levels of intelligence? So many questions to ponder I know.

In models of research capability building there is a premise that everyone leaving academia and entering practice at the point of qualification is ‘research conscious’ or ‘research aware’ i.e. they understand the role of research in informing their practice and improving patient outcomes and have the necessary skills and expertise to implement evidence based practice and critically appraise research publications. So why, if we develop graduates who are research conscious, are we not at a stage where healthcare professionals are ‘research confident’ i.e confident about engaging with researchers and comfortable with talking about research?

If we are truly going to bridge the clinical/academic gap and embed research within practice the world of research shouldn’t be one of mystery where the rules are uncertain, where there is a possibility of tripping yourself up in conversation or feeling embarrassed. It should not be a world where, on entering it as a clinician, you feel that your vast clinical expertise and knowledge is somehow of lesser importance or value than the skills of researchers.

Last week I attended the inaugural lecture of Prof. Josie Tetley at Manchester Metropolitan University and Josie made the comment that researchers working within University environments are not ‘universally clever’. This struck a cord with me as being at the heart of building a culture where research is co-created by people who, whilst understanding each others differing expertise, place equal value each others knowledge.

As a researcher I love working with clinicians, I love the passion and desire to make a difference to patient care they exude and I love their ability to ask questions which stretch and challenge me. Even more importantly I love the way, when we work together, our combined knowledge takes us to places we could not travel to alone. Maybe, as researchers, we need to get better at communicating this and maybe as clinicians we need to start embracing with confidence the significant expertise we bring to the research environment.

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“Share your news”

For a number of years I kept bees, hence the photo accompanying this post, and spent many a happy time sitting under a tree on a sunny day watching the comings and going of the hive. Bees flying in ladened with pollen and full of news. Their complex waggle dance alerting others to the locations of the richest sources of pollen and nectar, a sharing which ensured the continued growth of the community and honey reserves to see the colony, and of course the happy beekeeper, through winter.

So why the focus on sharing the news and growing communities in this post? Last week I co-facilitated a workshop on effective networking and collaboration for health and social care researchers and have been reflecting on the perspectives we explored during the day. The differing views and challenges people voiced; differing approaches adopted; feelings about what is involved; why some people enjoy it and others find it nerve-racking; how much time people were prepared to invest in it; what kind of networking takes people out of their comfort zone and the oft voiced challenge for clinicians when required to network with members of the academic community.

One of the topics explored was the need to move from a general approach to networking, defined as interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts, to a more strategic approach, defined as networking with a defined goal. To network strategically mean to think carefully about our career progression and aspirations and the kinds of networks we need to cultivate and sustain to support our progression. For some this led to a feeling of discomfort associated with the perceived need for self-promotion, especially when adding intent to the relationships you seek to forge and the networks you aim to join.

For anyone challenged by the perceived egocentricity of such networking a presentation by the shy connector offers a differing perspective – “It’s not about selling yourself, it’s about helping others, it’s not about becoming popular it’s about learning and sharing.” Sustaining networks requires a level of mutuality, whether it is with an individual or group such reciprocity is essential for researchers seeking to develop their networks into more formal research collaborations.

Mid week I was listening to an interview with Dr Matthew Green talking about the coffee-house culture in London in the late 1700s. A vibrant, buzzing scene in which politics, philosophy, the arts and science were debated freely.  He described how the usual welcome when someone entered a coffee-house was ‘share your news’. Joining the discussion and the community was as much about giving as it was about receiving.

Whatever your perspective, networking is a fundamental skill for researchers at all stages of their career and the foundation upon which research collaborations are built. Successful collaboration requires investment in time, resources and trust and rarely happens by chance. Relationships are forged over time and require nurturing by all concerned. The people we meet, the conversations we have with others which spark ideas, the person whose world view opens a new window on something we have been grappling with for a long time. Each time we connect there is potential but only if this is a two way process.

For those just starting out on a research career publications or presentations may be sparse but active involvement and participation in relevant networks, provides visibility and something to write about which demonstrates the efforts being made to become part of the research community. It shows that you are starting to make a contribution which is an important statement. For any clinician concerned about networking in an academic community do not under estimate the contribution you have to make informed by your clinical skills and expertise.

So perhaps, when we think about our networking activities as researchers, a fundamental question to ask ourselves is what news are we sharing and contributing. As we enter a workshop or meeting or join a twitter chat are we sharing our news or solely taking away the news shared freely by others. Are we sitting on a piece of information which we know would be helpful to the discussion. To develop effective networks skills getting used to sharing your news is an important skill to nurture.