Experience must inform the evidence

Peter Beresford suggests that the reputation of research
findings may be about to change for the better.

Research is often criticised for merely confirming at great
expense what we already know. But this looks set to change this
year. The two most contentious contemporary issues both hinge on
research. The policy response to the foot and mouth disaster, mass
and “contiguous” culling, was based on computer models developed by
academics at Imperial College, London.

Critics say their evidence base was inadequate but these
researchers look like playing a key part in restructuring British
agriculture. This may not only mean fewer small farms, less
cultivation and more agribusiness. Our whole understanding of the
English and Welsh rural landscape may also need to be revised.

The battle over public-private partnerships and private finance
initiatives has dominated the domestic political agenda since the
general election. Over the summer rival research findings have been
used as the key weapons. Each side argues that policy must be based
on “evidence” not “ideology”. Each side attacks the other for
failing to do this.

Meanwhile, research reports make front page news and think-tank
authors crowd the TV news hospitality suites. So it is at our peril
that we assume research is ineffectual.

That may be true of the grant chasers preoccupied with personal
promotion and the next academic research assessment exercise. But
big businesses like Serco, Nomura and Norwich Union are hardly
supporting health research out of the kindness of their hearts. If
they were, shareholders would fall on them like a ton of

Mental health service users highlight the bad effects research
can have. The research priorities of drug companies, for example,
reinforce the chemical response to people’s distress and leaves
many service users feeling damaged and unsupported.

Now the reprioritising of research has come home to social care,
with the establishment of the Social Care Institute for Excellence.
Its brief is to promote knowledge-based social care practice. The
appointment of Scie’s chairperson, the disability rights activist
Jane Campbell, must represent one of the most significant single
developments for user involvement in social care. Indeed it may
come to be seen as a key departure for the government public policy
agenda which embraces participation, empowerment and

Jane Campbell’s appointment offers a serious chance to address
many of the new questions that are being raised about research and
evidence. How do we insure an inclusive approach to knowledge
formation? What constitutes evidence? How should we understand the
relationship between direct experience and evidence?

Scie has much less money than its health equivalent, the
National Institute for Clinical Excellence, so what impact on
practice will it actually be able to make? As Jane Campbell says:
“We are very used to making things happen with very little
resources. Finance isn’t the only criterion. We have the will.”

Her approach looks set to herald a new kind of partnership and a
new kind of research putting emphasis where it belongs – on the
“public”, as citizens and service users.

Yvonne Roberts in on holiday.

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