29 March 2022
Senior Research Associate in our evidence team Dr Sharea Ijaz talks about her secondment to public health at Bristol City Council.
It was the first week of March 2021 when I saw an email advertising a public health embedded researcher role with Bristol City Council. The role was funded by the Clinical Research Network (CRN) West of England to support the development of the NIHR public health portfolio. I jumped with excitement and immediately asked my manager if I could try. There had been a longing in me for some time to delve back into my public health background. I had no experience of working with local authorities in the UK so was sceptical of my chances. I was beyond pleased when I got the offer.
I soon learnt that there are several other embedded researchers focusing on public health across English local authorities. Local authorities had to bid for these roles to be embedded in them, with the aim to build a bridge between the practice and research worlds. We started meeting semi-regularly as a group online to discuss, ponder, vent and cheer together about this largely unscripted role.
It took me some time (several months) to learn the language of the local authority. Every organisation has its own language. Researchers and academics often speak in a way that is different from normal people, hence the need for plain language summaries. It’s not just jargon, it is also how we express ourselves, very cautiously and precisely, which is something we imbibe in our years of training without realising. Similarly, there were words, acronyms and expressions that were flying way above my head during meetings in the early days. Thankfully, my public health colleagues were all patient people who were very happy to explain when I asked serial daft questions.
The impression a lot of academics have is that there is a lack of interest in research among local authorities. I can say with complete confidence that is not the case. Local authorities have historically been about provision of service and not about research. So, it’s not surprising that they are not set up with research governance structures. I am contributing in a small way in helping set this up for Bristol City Council, but we are not there yet. It’s a good sign that NIHR is also keen to establish research infrastructure in local authorities now.
At the moment, there is no ‘front door’ if an interested researcher wanted to get in touch with a relevant practice team for some collaboration. This is so different from academic world where anyone interested in your work can see all your work in one place and contact you with a single click on your email address.
Local authority colleagues also regularly move between departments, so that someone who is in drug and alcohol services today can be in another area next year. Researchers therefore often collaborate with local authorities when they already know someone there. Again, we are trying to improve this situation and get a one-point of access established but there is a long way to go.
There is no research related software on the council systems for practitioners. No EndNote, no STATA, no NVIVO, nothing! No access to any digital libraries either. It is like cooking without utensils! And yet the committed among them find a way to get into research whenever they can. So many of them want to learn more about their research options, and I learnt with them. Now they have me available as help, and they seem pleased about it. In the past year I helped four colleagues bid for research funding and two of them have been successful. It felt fantastic to find ways and means that enable council colleagues to evaluate their innovative services.
The role has allowed me to stretch my skillset in a new way. I have learnt that I enjoy connecting people, providing liaison and deciphering complex communication between different worlds, and that my forthright nature can be useful and appreciated.
But the nicest moment for me was when recently in the public health staff bulletin I was referred to as “our very own Sharea”. It brought immense relief and joy to see that I was becoming the bridge I had been appointed to be.
The success of embedded roles requires more than a researcher being interested. People and organisations have to create, want and commit to these opportunities. Bristol City Council (Jo, Christina, People’s Directorate) wanted to have an embedded researcher for building their capacity and so they bid for this CRN funding. They have tried to make my transition easy and make sure they make full use of me. ARC West (Jelena, Pippa, John) have been instrumental in making this possible by graciously allowing me to take this up as a secondment and then allowing me to continue for another year when an extension was offered. And none of it could happen if the CRN didn’t provide funds for these posts.
There are several new local-authority-based research roles in planning for the coming years across the country, both in public health and in social care. I heartily recommend researchers who want to learn more from and give more to the practice world to keep a look out for these and take the opportunity where available. It is a challenging yet highly satisfying experience.