John Woolham is Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit in the Policy Institute at King’s. (637 words)
I was invited to speak last month at a seminar organised by the School for Social Care Research (SSCR) at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). The purpose of the event was to ‘showcase’ research SSCR have funded over the last couple of years and to further cement links between researchers and policy-makers.
A word about SSCR. The school started in 2009 largely because the then Department of Health recognised the need for more, and better quality research in the field of social care. Social care research had always been the poor relation of medical or clinically focused research. There are several reasons for this, but there was, then, a recognition that the infrastructure of support for research in social care research was nowhere near as well developed as that for medical research. This is still the case, but over the last nine years, SSCR has made a very significant contribution to developing both the evidence base, and in changing culture in the Department of Health and Social Care to make social care research more visible, and to enable those of us who work as social care researchers to make use of the advice and support available to clinical colleagues. SSCR’s ‘productivity’ over this time has also been prodigious. It has funded 125 research projects and over 28 scoping and methods reviews. It’s also been good at supporting dissemination: funded researchers are required to write short, accessible summaries of their work which are uploaded onto the SSCR website. Guiding principles are that research it funds should be relevant, robust, conducted to the highest ethical and governance standards, and have user, carer and practitioner engagement as a primary focus. Little wonder, then, that even in these austere times, the DHSC recently announced that the school would receive funding for a further 5 years.
The event began with a very rapid overview of research findings from most recent research, before invited speakers presented their work, in 15 minute slots. Topics included self-funders and independent financial advice (Dr Kate Baxter and Professor Yvonne Birks, University of York); prevention and unmet needs (Dr Jose-Luis Fernandez, LSE); carers (Professor Liz Lloyd, Bristol University; markets (Dr Juliette Malley, LSE); and my own presentation on telecare for older people.
The whole point of SSCR has been to produce evidence that can be used to improve social care, and it seemed from the ensuing discussion following each presentation that the policy people and professional ‘leads’ at the DHSC were very engaged and interested in what the research findings were showing. All of this has to be very welcome. There is, though, still work to be done. It’s important that research isn’t cherry-picked. This happens when people who should know better ignore good evidence in preference to bad, endorse only those findings from a body of research that support a decision that’s already been made, or extrapolate from their own personal experiences. Local and national politicians, service user advocates and managers working in voluntary sector, local and central government don’t have to use research evidence at all of course – but the decisions they take will be much more effective and useful if they are.
One challenge is how to bring not just policy-makers and researchers together, but a much wider constituency of people who need to know about research, and act on it. A second is how to improve ‘research literacy’ within the social work profession. Limited progress seems to being made here too, with crowded social work training curricula. This makes it difficult for trainers and teachers to find time and space to encourage the next generation of social workers to know the difference between good research and bad. Without this critical awareness, evidence based practice will surely remain a chimera.