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All for public consumption
Left to right - Dr Nicola Lindson-Hawley, Dr Rachna Begh, and Jamie Hartmann-Boyce at a recent departmental open day.

In the first part of this year I have spent more time engaging members of the public in research than ever before. This has mainly been through my role in the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group (CTAG), which is more ‘customer’ facing than any research job I have done before. It is also because ideally research should be publically available and accessible. After all, why carry out the research if we’re not going to tell anyone about it? What’s the point of all that effort if it doesn’t end up helping people?

The type of engagement I have been doing seems to fall into three categories and I’ll give you a quick example of each.

The public as student

A couple of weeks ago, myself and Rachna Begh (fellow member of the Behavioural Medicine team and CTAG author) ran a session introducing systematic reviews to the general public. The session was one of a series developed by Lynne Maddocks to introduce and discuss research methods with the public.

There was so much ‘engagement’ that we didn’t make it through all of our slides, but I definitely see that as a positive!
- Dr Nicola Lindson-Hawley, University of Oxford.

It is really hard to know what to expect when running a session like this and there is a lot of anxiety (as with every type of public engagement) about making what we do generally understandable, without being condescending. So immersed am I in my subjects that I feel I have lost all sight of what would be considered ‘average’ knowledge about reviewing and tobacco. This is all important; however there probably isn’t a need to worry quite so much. Our audience were people who had signed up for the session and were happy to do so in their personal time. This meant that they were engaged and enthusiastic. If they wanted something explained then they asked, and they were keen to get to grips with the subject. In fact, there was so much ‘engagement’ that we didn’t make it through all of our slides, but I definitely see that as a positive!

The public as researcher

CTAG are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year and as a part of that we are carrying out a prioritisation project. Part of this is a survey asking people for the questions they think still need to be answered by tobacco addiction research. As I will explain below some of our participants will be people with a personal rather than professional interest in the topic, meaning they are unlikely to come from a health and/or research background. Therefore, it was decided early on that we also needed public involvement in the design of our questionnaire. This time this came in the form of the UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies’ smokers panel - a group of smokers and ex-smokers brought together by the University of Nottingham. So I took my questionnaire to Nottingham and asked the panel to fill it in there and then and let me know if they had any problems understanding it, or any suggestions on how it could be improved. They could shout it out or if they were feeling shy write their comments directly on the questionnaire.

There was lots of helpful feedback and I can safely say that the survey was much improved through their input. Engagement like this often goes by the wayside due to time constraints (guilty as charged) so it’s important to think about this and allow for it right from the start when putting the funding application in.

The public as participant

As mentioned above we wanted our questionnaire to have design input from the public as the public would be filling it in, and this is the case in most healthcare research. However, this research project is slightly different from anything I have done before. Our output is going to be a list of priorities for tobacco research in general and a list of priorities for CTAG more specifically. So, we hope that the opinion of the public will be influencing the direction of future research. The reason why - well at this point I've come full circle - What’s the point of all that effort if it doesn’t end up helping people? If we want to know what is going to help people the most then why don’t we simply just ask them?

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