Stop, collaborate and listen

I’ve taken part in a number of RDS and research events recently – speaking at conferences, holding teaching sessions, and participating in advising forums – all of which have given me the opportunity to focus on the benefits of talking through your research in larger groups. There is something unique about having to explain and justify your research topic and design to a group of experienced researchers who are unfamiliar with your specific project.

As I’ve written about before, the strength of your case for the priority of your research topic is one of the very first things any funder of health and social care research will assesses when considering research applications. Nevertheless, in my experience, elucidating the priority of their topic can be something of a struggle for many researchers. It’s easy to become so close to your own area of research that it’s importance becomes self-evident. It is vital to remember that the need for your research may not be so obvious to others.

I’ve spoken before about what I see as one of the strengths of RDS advisers – our outsider’s perspective on the specific topic under investigation alongside our grasp of research design, methodology, and the requirements of various health and social care research funders. Participating in various events in recent weeks has reinforced to me how helpful it can be for researchers to engage with RDS advisers as they design and write their research applications.

But it is not only engagement with RDS advisers that can be helpful. It was with pleasure that I observed, at a recent RDS SE research writing day, how much peer discussion enhances proposals. This is a phenomenon I have observed before – at events such as the National RDS Writing Retreat and RDCS’s Research Retreat. At all of these events, different research teams tended not to view each other as competitors for the same pot of funders money, but rather as fellows researchers all of whom are striving to design and carry out the highest quality research for the benefit of all. Ultimately, we are all part of the same community and are generally delighted to share our experiences, expertise and knowledge with others.

It is considered good practice for research projects to set up a steering group comprising experienced individuals who are external to the research group. The remit of such a group is to oversee the project as it is running and members can be called upon to offer advice when things don’t go according to plan. In some ways, I think such a group could be helpful when designing a study – ensuring that researchers can justify their choices of topic, research question and design, offering advice and expertise to deal with difficult or sensitive issues, and presenting different and external viewpoints that might not otherwise be considered.

This type of informal and ‘pre-award’ steering group is a role that we, as RDS advisers, can, and often do, play. I also think it a valuable role that we should encourage other researchers to adopt and one that we should facilitate whenever possible.

This is one way that I believe we can strengthen our community and the quality of our research design, plans and output.