Are researchers solving the wrong problems?


We are in a time of rapid change in research, and academia. We are pushed to have greater impact, but with fewer resources. There is much less availability of grant funding, and more competition from other researchers. In Australia, recent policy shifts have meant that funding and collaboration from Small to Medium Enterprises [SME] and other companies is valued by the government (in status and in university funding models) just as much as traditional government grants from the Australian Research Council [ARC] or the National Health and Medical Research Council [NHMRC].


I am really keen to do this, but once I started talking to them, I found that as researchers, we aren't usually trying to solve actual real-world problems, just ones that we know exist because of our knowledge of evidence and theory. Companies in our area can much more easily engage designers and market research companies to work with as opposed to researchers. We are slow. We have to wait for ethical approval. We don’t usually make things look pretty. There just aren’t very many reasons to engage with us. In order to be relevant and appeal to these collaborators, I think that we really need to make a shift in the way that we work.


We need to ensure that our knowledge translates to bridge the research-practice gap, but also, the problem-solution gap. As researchers, we need to be much more engrained in communities and business so that we are not only enhancing our capacity to solve problems, but we are also much better at knowing which problems are out there that need our expertise to solve them.


To illustrate, I have been trying to recruit some schools for some interviews to engage in the design and development of a program, or some resources for schools to enhance body image and reduce sport supplement use in adolescent boys. One school wrote back and said: “Unfortunately, at this time I/we aren't very interested in the product.” … I was able to write a convincing literature review and theoretical framework, convince a grant board, and several ethics committees that this program was needed… but not the people that I am creating it for!


I think this illustrates one of the major issues with research in health fields, and health behaviour change in general quite clearly- we are developing solutions to problems that people don’t have, or don’t feel are important enough for them to take action… Or we are not creating the right solution for the right problem. That might be why, when it comes to dissemination, we find it quite hard to get people to take on the resources that we have created… They don’t solve any particular problems for them.


You might be thinking- but we have the research that tells us of the size and scope of the problem, and the consequences of not fixing it. In the case of body image, we constantly write that 70% of adolescents are unhappy with their body, that 20% of the population will experience an ED during their lifetime, that ED have the highest mortality rates of all psychological conditions, we know all of that, but this doesn’t directly relate to people’s lives. These are the problems as researchers see them, not adolescents, teachers, or parents.

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To enhance the relevance of what we do I believe that we have to search for the juicy carrot in the middle here, and to spend a lot more time with the people that we are trying to help, asking them what they think would be useful to them.


I think we can all recall examples from our own work, or from reading the work of others…”too few parents came along to the information night”, “challenges with recruitment and retention presented some challenges that mean we don’t have sufficient statistical power”… “so few males completed the survey that we had to eliminate them from the analyses”…


If we ask these people whether they would like a world where everyone feels great about their body and no one has an eating disorder, I am sure they would agree, so what are they interested in engaging with to help achieve that goal?


Design thinking can help us to think about our problems from a consumer perspective

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Zali Yager is an Associate Professor in Health and Physical Education in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University.

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