Embracing our realness

15 January 2019

“What is REAL? asked the Rabbit one day… ‘It doesn’t happen all at once’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams)

I was delighted to be given The Velveteen Rabbit as one of my Christmas presents this year as it was a book that I read to my children when they were younger (although they now deny that ever happened!) and it has served as a basis for understanding human relationships ever since then. Over many years of life changes and moves, I had lost connection with this book and its philosophy and so was delighted when my partner gave it to me as a gift this Christmas. Sometimes the simplest stories remind us of how complex life is and that perhaps we all need to be a bit more REAL!

So, in this new role as Research Executive Member of the UK Council of Deans of Health, I have been reflecting on how we keep the programme of work ‘real’, meaningful and impactful whilst ensuring we are relevant and ‘the go to’ commentators and opinion leaders. I take on this challenge with gratitude to those who came before me and in particular to Professor Patrick Callaghan, my predecessor, who has established a sound foundation upon which to build.

The Council’s strategic priorities of influencing policy UK-wide, securing sustainable funding and fostering leadership and innovation are central to the work of the research portfolio and being real about the challenges these priorities pose for research is very necessary in the current ever-changing context. My focus on being ‘real’ helps me to figure out how best to do this by working in partnership with Dorothea as policy lead and the Research Advisory Group (RAG). I am passionate about CIP (collaborative, inclusive and participative) ways of working and it seems to me that a key strategy in maintaining our realness is harnessing the energy of the research community. I am delighted that we have a refreshed RAG with increased and more diverse membership who are all keen to advance the research portfolio and make an impact.

When reading The Velveteen Rabbit again I reflected on why in nursing, midwifery and allied health professions we often and regularly adopt a negative narrative regarding research? Yet in two recent blogs Professors David Richards and Jo Rycroft-Malone highlighted the success of our research in terms of its diversity and impact. Of course they also highlighted the limitations and need for a lot more work, which we would expect to be the case. However, what kind of ‘realness’ are we waiting for and by whose criteria? As the horse said to the velveteen rabbit – “…Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby…” or as I interpret that, why are we waiting for others’ approval? Whilst I am not being naïve or deluding myself into believing that all is good in our research infrastructure, support and quality, I do believe that we need to shift the narrative surrounding our work and celebrate its diversity, quality and impact – often inspite of adequate or sustained funding! I believe strongly that we need to sustain, grow and celebrate the strength that is our diversity as researchers and our ability to be fleet of foot in designing responsive and contemporary methodologies that are appropriate for unravelling many of the complex health problems in contemporary society. And maybe if we accept and celebrate our own ‘realness’ we can help others to understand the true nature and value of our work.

The way we engage our pre-registration students in research is critical to this narrative. Research capacity and capability building have always been problematic in nursing, midwifery and allied health professions as reflected in the challenges raised in our work on clinical academic research careers. However, as anyone engaged in Quality Improvement knows, going ‘upstream’ to address a problem is critical. Thus, addressing the preparedness of our graduates as researchers is critical to our future and to rapidly increasing the pool of early career researchers who will be future research leaders. The #150Leaders programme participants clearly demonstrate why this is important and I am delighted that research in pre-registration curricula will be a key focus of our work in 2019.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) probably provides one of the greatest opportunities for us to demonstrate our realness. As we progress through the REF processes, which in themselves are problematic, we have significant opportunities to demonstrate the quality and impact of our work. It is always interesting to me when engaged in REF discussions how problematic the concept of ‘impact’ is in many subject areas. Yet in nursing, midwifery and allied health professions we sometimes fail to recognise that it is often easier for us to demonstrate impact because of the nature of our methodologies, the often immediate engagement with practice (in its widest sense) we have during our research and the collaborative and participative nature of many of our methodologies. Being confident about this impact is essential to our future and of course provides an essential sustained funding platform upon which we can build.

As I write this blog, we are eighty days away from the implementation of Brexit and all the uncertainty it brings. It would be naïve to suggest that exiting the European Union won’t impact on research funding and we know that many nursing, midwifery and allied health professionals in the UK are active partners in European-funded research. Research is now a truly global activity and to suggest that we can sustain the same level and quality of science without this funding is ignorant to the extreme and reflective of a bygone era that will never return. Again, this is a time for our professions to demonstrate the strength of our global partnerships, their impact, significance and reach to make the case for sustained models of funding.

So, before my eyes drop off or my joints get loose and shabby, it only remains for me to wish everyone a very Happy New Year. This is a time for us to accept our realness, to shift our narrative, to own our future and demonstrate the impact we are making as well as that which we are capable of with further funding, support, leadership and influence. I look forward to embracing these challenges.

Professor Brendan McCormack, Executive Member – Research, Council of Deans of Health
Head of the Divisions of Nursing, Occupational Therapy & Arts Therapies
Associate Director Centre for Person-centred Practice Research
School of Health Sciences
Queen Margaret University Edinburgh

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