Writing for the Fuse Blog, Sophie Phillips, SPHR funded PhD student at Fuse (Durham University) and Dr Rachel Mowbray, Insight Coordinator, County Durham Sport, Active Partnership tell us about collaborating during Sophie’s secondment at County Durham Sport between January and March 2021.
It seems obvious that we would work together, right?
I conduct research in an academic institution and Rachel promotes evidence-based working in an Active Partnership which collaborates closely with Durham County Council. Our day-to-day roles are quite different. But, we have a shared goal: to tackle inequalities that stand in the way of physical activity engagement and support children and adults to be more active. By working together, combining knowledge, skills, and connections, we think we can make even greater progress towards improving people’s health and wellbeing.
How is academic research positioned within the physical activity landscape?
Physical activity policy and practice is a large and complex system made up of many different organisations, approaches, and settings. Academia is often positioned as external to the system, trying to create impact from the outside through activities referred to as ‘pathways to impact’. But in reality, academic research could be a crucially important element of the system in its own right (but often doesn’t have that position). Can positioning academic research as part of the system (as opposed to outside the system) make creating impact less of a hurdle and more of an opportunity?
Through my secondment to County Durham Sport, academic research has been embedded into the local Active Partnership. This gave me a huge opportunity to make an impact (on a daily basis!) by simply talking to others in different parts of the system. By sharing my knowledge and passion through conversations, I felt like I could make a real difference. Sharing information and ideas can challenge and influence thinking. This can (and does) influence the way things are done.
What are the benefits of an embedded researcher in policy or practice?
Rachel: Non-academic audiences often cannot access academic publications in meaningful ways because of financial barriers and/or because of the academic format. Having Sophie embedded in our organisation brought academic research to life and into the conversations happening between practitioners, policy makers, and non-academic researchers. These conversations allowed us to access the most up-to-date and robust information about physical activity. In the same way, County Durham Sport were able to offer extensive knowledge of the local physical activity system and inequalities. Working together, we created a stronger evidence-base on which to tackle the challenge of inactivity.
Sophie: I was able to communicate knowledge from academic research papers on physical activity into meaningful insight for County Durham Sport. One of the pieces of work I conducted during the secondment was a report on early years physical activity and movement. This included translating evidence from academic research papers into meaningful and accessible outputs (including reports, overviews in tables, and presentations). I was also able to engage with different stakeholders and physical activity providers across multiple settings, who are involved with local early years provision. This helped to bring together both the research evidence and the current local landscape, to make evidence-based and actionable recommendations about future early years provision.
Take-home messages from our collaborative experience…
Our day-to-day roles are very different, as are the expectations and outcomes of our work. Although this presents some challenges (such as differing timescales and required outputs), ultimately, we share a goal – to tackle inequalities that stand in the way of physical activity engagement, support everyone to be more active, and help to improve people’s health and wellbeing. Finding this common ground can foster true collaborative thinking and drive connections between academic and non-academic players in the physical activity system. Integrating our different perspectives and approaches is beneficial and necessary to create meaningful system change.
Rachel: Tackling big issues (like inequalities in physical activity) requires a collaborative and evidence-based approach. I would encourage other third sector organisations to engage directly with academic researchers – both to learn from their expertise, and to share your own experience of practice or policy. We can achieve more working together than we can alone!
Sophie: My experience of collaboration with County Durham Sport has been invaluable. It has influenced the way I think about conducting and communicating research. I would encourage other public health research PhD students to explore the opportunities of engaging in a short time with policy and practice partners in their field, to help view their work from different angles.
Sophie’s academic research is about measuring the physical activity and movement behaviours of pre-school aged children. Her secondment at County Durham Sport was funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) QR Strategic Priorities Fund awarded through Durham University.
Rachel promotes evidence-based partnership working to tackle inequalities in physical activity through her role with County Durham Sport, Active Partnership funded by Sport England.