Who’s on your team?

Through my role as an adviser for the Research Design Service South East (RDS SE), I most often find myself working with clinicians in the NHS. To me, this is one of the most important roles the RDS – to offer busy clinicians advice and support on how to design, conduct and gain funding for research on issues that they see in their everyday practice. However, I have found myself working with academic researchers based primarily in universities more frequently of late. Perhaps this is an indication of the growing competition for research funds as the research councils, the traditional funders of university-based research, reduce their budgets and become more specific about the types of research they will fund. It is also a reflection of the growing commitment to health research within the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Whatever the cause, I’ve been interested to note the differences in expectation of researchers from these very different backgrounds.

One of the main differences I find between the two centres around expectations of the type of research team funders are looking for when assessing applications. When I advise clinical researchers, they are very open and appreciative of larger research teams, where every individual has their own area of expertise to bring to the table. This is something which the NIHR requires. If you’re planning to conduct a clinical trial, the NIHR want to see involvement from methodologists, statisticians, health economists and service users. All of this, in addition to the clinical expertise of the team in terms of the specific subject area. And brokering these collaborations is something with which RDSs can help.

By contrast, this notion of a large research team is something that can be less familiar in academic circles. I met with an academic researcher a few weeks ago who summed it up quite nicely. ‘We’re too used to doing everything ourselves,’ he said. ‘If a new skill is required for a project, then I’ll teach it to myself.’

This is a notion I recognize. From the earliest stages of academic research – the PhD – many researchers are left on their own to get on with their projects. You get some tips from your supervisor and maybe a post-doc in your group, but if something needs to be done, then it’s up to you to make sure that it is.

However, from the perspective of many funders, this is a waste of time and money. If your project involves collecting vast amounts of data, the funder wants to see that you have someone on your research team with a proven track record of analyzing such data. Otherwise, this represents a risk. Therefore, for every task you have highlighted, you should have someone on your team dedicated to complete it and with the necessary knowledge, experience and/or supervision to do so.

At the end of the day, the thing that all involved care about is that the research is successful. Therefore, maximize your chances of success. When it comes to your research team, think carefully about who’s on your team and make sure you’ve got the support to see your project through to successful completion.

Winding paths

Research careers are often meandering. You move from one position to the next, at times by luck as much as judgment. Different universities, different countries, different projects. Great importance is given to this semi-nomadic existence. It certainly has its difficulties, especially as you grow older and add a partner and children into the equation. Yet, it also has its benefits and I recognize that I would not have the job I do today had I not had experiences of these different places, projects and roles.

I’m a methodologist; a job I would not have considered when I first got my PhD in psychopathology back in 2004. I work for the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), specifically for the Research Design Service South East (RDS SE). The NIHR does love its acronyms. There are 10 RDSs nationally, each covering a different area of England, and the RDS SE covers the counties of Sussex, Surrey and Kent.

I don’t mean for this blog to turn into an advertisement for the NIHR or RDS, but the service we offer is, in my experience at least, unique. We help researchers turn their research ideas into projects capable of competing for NIHR funding. You come to us with an idea to improve patient care and we help you to formulate a research question, plan a study to address that question and write an application to get the work funded.

Many of the researchers I meet are surprised at just how much support we offer. It’s not just the mechanics of bid writing, although we do that too, but also advice in study design, statistics, health economics, patient and public involvement (PPI; another great NIHR acronym), amongst others. I have friends who work in different disciplines who would love to access the kind of help the RDS offers, but nothing that I know of like this service exists outside of the structure of the NIHR.

I love planning studies and considering the best design to address each research question. It’s a challenge to design something that satisfies as a robust, academic experiment and also as a practical, clinical piece of work applicable to patients in the NHS. I also relish being able to work with a wide range of people – each an expert in their field, but who share the commitment to improving the care they can give their patients. It’s a privilege to help them achieve this aim in some small way.

I’m fortunate that my particular winding path has led me here. Hopefully, from time to time, I can help others who are taking the next steps of their own.

Late to the party…?

I’m fairly new to using social media in a professional context. In my personal life, I’m young enough to have a Facebook, but too old to have a tumblr. And, even on Facebook, the friends I have are just that – people I’ve known for years and with whom I have regular contact. I only have 86 of them and I post a lot of pictures of my children. I imagine its pretty boring to the vast majority of people, especially those who don’t know me.

The thought of actually using such a platform for work was, until recently entirely foreign. When I came back from maternity leave in January, a colleague mentioned that the Research Design Service South East, for whom I work as a methodologist, has a Twitter account. It’s @NIHR_RDSSE for those of you interested. Hearing this, I was intrigued – what possible benefit could we get as a service from the occasional posting of 140 characters?

As I explored Twitter, I was surprised by not only the number of professional organizations that have accounts, but by the number of individuals who tweet in, at least a semi-, professional capacity. I came across links to papers that I immediately downloaded, highlighted events of which I hadn’t been aware, and came across funding deadlines that I hadn’t yet got around to flagging. It was a revelation.

However, even more than realising what a great resource Twitter was, I found myself intrigued by the conversations in which individuals were engaged. It soon became clear that there was a real community of people on Twitter who were dedicated to, and passionate about, health research and improving patient care. And, perhaps more importantly, they were using Twitter as a medium to pursue these interests and engage with others who shared them.

For a while, that’s as far as my involvement went. I bookmarked some accounts, lurked on a few blogs, but still didn’t feel that I had anything to add to the conversation. Some weeks later, however, I found myself buried under a pile of draft NIHR applications for various funding programs. I spent a long week going through and commenting on them all. This process is a regular part of my job, but having so many to review in the same few days is, thankfully, rare. As I worked my way through them, I found myself writing the same set of comments time and again. These weren’t long, specific comments about individual applications, but rather short, global comments that I was repeating verbatim. I should write a list and hand them out to researchers, I thought to myself and that’s when it hit me – I could do just that and I knew the perfect platform. By the end of the day, I had a Twitter account, @ClaireRosten, and a hashtag, #NIHRtips.

I still tweet #NIHRtips whenever new ones come to mind and, to my delight, others also use the hashtag. I get re-tweets and have interactions with others because of them. A blog seems to be the logical progression. I hope that it will lead to more interactions and conversations with others who share my interests.

Of course, it also gives me something else to tweet about.

I realise I’m late to the party. But hopefully there’s enough time left for me to pick up a drink and join in.