Directing research to engage and support local communities

Helen Szoor-McElhinney and colleagues describe how academics can shape their research around key community needs and encourage participation from multidisciplinary faculty, students and local people

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University of Edinburgh

University of Edinburgh
29 Jun 2021
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Advice on shaping research around community needs
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How universities can build meaningful collaborations to solve societal challenges

Advice on building meaningful collaborations for better community and civic engagement

All universities have a responsibility to engage with and support the communities in which they are located. This can be done in many ways but a key tool in any university’s repertoire is its research.

So, how can universities shape research projects to ensure benefits are felt by local communities? One way is by inviting community participation in research projects that seek to address key issues or challenges faced by local people and groups.

These will vary according to the institution’s remit and its locality. So, the starting point for any university or academic looking to develop such a project must be a thorough understanding of local issues or major challenges faced by local people.

Shaping research to community needs

Use existing networks: When initiating new community-university research partnerships it can be helpful to draw upon existing research networks that have connections to targeted groups within the community. The Our Health programme, which aims to reduce health inequalities through community-based participatory research, has built upon relationships that have emerged out of associated clinical research grants. Doing this not only reduces the initial workload in terms of seeking out community partners but it almost always leads to a “natural fit” around shared research interests and long-term goals.

Clarify the research focus: To effectively shape your research to respond to community needs, it is important to be clear about what, and how, you are seeking to investigate. The Our Health team focuses on research related to health and well-being. We work in partnership with socio-economically disadvantaged communities to improve health literacy through participatory research and empower patient and community groups to take greater control of their own health. 

By establishing the overall aim of the community engagement and understanding the research methods involved in achieving that aim, you will be better placed to keep the community engagement on track and participants working as a cohesive, strong and motivated research team.

Use existing resources: A valuable starting point for any academic or practitioner who seeks to understand community needs around health and well-being would be resources such as the James Lind Alliance (JLA), which has useful guidelines for forming and working in research priority-setting partnerships. The Our Health team were guided by the evidence base the JLA had compiled of health-related research questions posed by the wider public, as well as conducting our own focus groups with local community groups to hear directly what research needs they felt were important and would want to participate in.

Make it interdisciplinary

We have shown through a qualitative case study of the Our Health programme that interdisciplinarity enhances community-based participatory research processes by providing flexibility and more research solutions and options through the range of disciplinary knowledge. When interdisciplinarity crossed a wide range of disciplines from the sciences and social sciences the shared learning environment provided was particularly rich. 

We would encourage others who are interested in setting up their own community-based participatory research programmes to harness the power of interdisciplinary collaboration. It is possible to facilitate meaningful local change by bringing together teams of researchers and mixed-level students from across the university to work on university-community research partnerships.

Embed community research into curricula

Students participate in these projects because they want rich experiential learning and skills training. They want to make a difference in the communities in which they live and study. We have found that students report gaining confidence in conducting research, in working outside their disciplines and engaging with professionals and the wider public. To offer these experiences to a wide and diverse student body and maximise impact, these opportunities should be embedded within the curriculum with sufficient financial and staffing support. 

Think long term

Developing community-university research partnerships takes time. If you want to reap the many benefits that these partnerships offer, you need to think and plan for the long term. The research relationships need to be fostered and respected and this means that all participants need to commit their time and energy to ensuring the relationships remain healthy and productive.

The real-world research questions presented by community-based research are complex and often problematic. Unpacking questions of this complexity may take several years but doing so provides potent, long-term learning experiences for community partners and students. The length of time it takes to answer community-posed questions and the length of university programmes means that students come and go from teams. This can be a challenge in terms of building relationships  between community partners and students. 

To mitigate this, try to ensure there is a constant, core team of academic staff. This will allow a natural student and community partner turnover to occur without disrupting the overall programme.

Helen Szoor-McEIhinney is Our Health programme lead, Alette Willis is senior lecturer in Health in Social Science and Liam Gilchrist is Our Health research associate, all at the University of Edinburgh.

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