Research Retreats – do they work?

I was fortunate recently to be invited to speak at a Research Retreat run by the Research Design and Conduct Service (RDCS – another acronym for you!). The RDCS operates pretty much the same as the Research Design Service (RDS) does, but in Wales rather than in England. There are some differences between us – the acronyms change (rather NISCHR than NIHR; RfPPB rather than RfPB) and there are slight differences in the NHS set-up (Health Boards rather than NHS Trusts; differences in how support costs are provided)– but nothing too different overall. Most importantly, however, the research and funding landscape remain pretty familiar.

The concept of a research retreat is not a new one. I know that certain RDSs in England, RDS SW for example, have been running them for years. But it was not something I had been a part of before and I was keen to see one in action. How productive would researchers be when provided with a few days dedicated research time, with the support of a range of methodologists and advisers, away from the pressures of their clinical responsibilities?

The RDCS team had done their homework. They’d booked out a small country hotel that had lots of room where the teams could work, wonderful food and, perhaps most importantly, a continual supply of tea and coffee. The timing was also good; there was a funding deadline that many of the teams were working toward. And the group was good – 9 teams of researchers in total, making it a small enough group to get some really interesting discussions going yet large enough to allow groups to work independently on their own projects.

There were a couple of talks each day – my own on mixed-methods research, an invaluable one on project management and costings, a fascinating talk by a PPI representative, and a thorough run-down of the funding remit and requirements. These gave the teams direction, tips, and allowed us to get together for group discussions.

The rest of the time was dedicated to writing, with advisers circulating to help out where needed. I spent time with almost all of the teams, as did the other advisers. It was an illuminating process: to give the advice as I normally do, but then, instead of waiting a month or so for the next meeting to see how the team had progressed, to meet with them again later on that day to work on the next part of the project. It was like putting in several months worth of advising work into a couple of days. It was also extremely fulfilling to see the teams grow in confidence and enthusiasm as they had the time together to work on their projects with expertise on tap to really move things forward.

Of course, the proof of it all will be in the outcomes of the projects. How will the 3 applications to RfPPB fare? Will the research teams at the start of their research journey make it all the way through to submission and ultimate project funding?

I am optimistic.

When given the time and space to connect with the others in their team and really focus on their research question, study design and funding application, their dedication to and enthusiasm for their projects was tangible. These were people who had seen problems in their clinical practice and were driven to explore solutions by research in order to make things better for their patients.

And that, in a nutshell, is what fundable health research is really all about.


I have to say a big thank you to Mark Kelson, Kerry Hood and everyone else at the RDCS for inviting me!

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