“The ultimate purpose of the centre is to deliver the best possible research addressing central societal issues. The aim is to set up structures which ensure that the research projects we establish and the questions we ask are the right ones, and the results we produce are relevant and useful to the professionals working in the field.”
Thus explained Anne-Dorthe Hestbæk, who heads the Children and Family Department at SFI and will serve as the leader of the new Centre for User Involvement in Research. The centre also draws on the expertise of a small group of key researchers from SFI’s departments. Their task is to assist all of SFI’s research departments in identifying projects in which user perspectives might be particularly useful – and to determine how such projects could be conducted. The goal is to have one or two projects in the pipeline at any given time in which researchers work innovatively and systematically with user groups during the research process.
Different user groups
Two types of user group will be central to the centre’s work. One is professionals such as social workers, teachers and civil servants at municipal level – groups, who use research results from SFI in their daily work, and they may give valuable input, e.g. on how to frame upcoming research projects, how to interpret quantitative findings or how to disseminate the findings best.
The other includes groups of citizens who are the centre of focus in SFI research; for example at-risk families, the elderly, the homeless, pupils or any other relevant members of the public.
“For instance, we could gain tremendously from their input on how best to collect data. How do we contact people? How do we engage them in the project? Which questions are conceived as meaningful? What are the best methods of extracting the information, we need?” explained Anne-Dorthe Hestbæk.
In establishing the centre, SFI is drawing inspiration from similar initiatives in other research institutions. One of them is the Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement, or DECIPHer, which is located in Cardiff.
The Deputy Director at the Cardiff centre, Adam Fletcher, also serves on SFI’s Advisory Research Board, and he regards the centre initiative as a natural step for SFI.
“I think SFI is in a very strong position to engage in these sorts of collaborations to make its research more relevant to practitioners and policy makers. There are already a lot of multidisciplinary projects at SFI answering policy relevant questions, and I think there are great opportunities to develop that further by including user groups.”
Research advisory groups
At DECIPHer, there are numerous structures in place to engage users, as well as multiple research disciplines, in research processes on complex health issues; the main focus of the centre. One of these structures is to establish various groups to support the process, as Adam Fletcher explained:
“For instance, we have what we call Research Development Groups, which are put together, when we write funding bids. They involve a small group of people, are both multidisciplinary and multisectoral, and always include non-academic partners, whose job is to ensure that the research questions are framed in a relevant way. We established 122 such groups between 2006 and 2014, resulting in 148 bids, 72 of which were successful – which I think proves the value of the approach.”
DECIPHer also maintains a permanent Youth Advisory Group – 15 young people supported by a full-time youth worker, who meet up regularly to give feedback on upcoming or ongoing research projects concerning the health issues of young people.
SFI’s new centre also plans to establish such groups at SFI for shorter or longer projects. The first is already in the pipeline: A group of 25 to 30 professionals working with at-risk children and young people, who will be appointed for a period of two years to develop joint projects with SFI, comment on new projects and give feedback on results. The plan is to recruit the first members before the end of this year and hold a series of group workshops in 2016 and 2017.
User needs and research quality
SFI is not the only research centre currently working to strengthen its ties with user groups. User-driven innovation is the buzzword of the day in many research environments, and for SFI the purpose of such processes is clear, as Anne-Dorthe Hestbæk stressed:
“The vital point for us will always be to deliver high quality research – and in some ways, I think there’s an interesting challenge in making ends meet in terms of producing research which is both relevant and useful to our users, and at the same time of international, academic quality.”
In Adam Fletcher’s experience, research relevance and research quality are two aspects of the same process for DECIPHer:
“You can be the most talented statistician or sociologist, using the methods at your disposal brilliantly to answer any research question, but if the question wasn’t set properly from the start, if it wasn’t relevant, we’re none the wiser for it. So you can gain from involving a broad group of disciplines and sectors in formulating the questions – and the scientific approach and quality then flows from that, in terms of the methods and analyses you apply to that question.”