Friday, 10 January 2014

On democratically selecting research ideas

I spent the day at a brainstorming session on mental health research at the University today (one of a series of ‘Grand Challenge’ workshops organised across a number of inter-disciplinary themes), aimed at outlining some key problems or issues that face mental healthcare and hence potential subjects for research.

It served as a good opportunity to meet another selection of researchers at the University interested in mental health, in addition to those who already are part of our Mental Health Research @ Uclan group. It was also very well attended by colleagues who work broadly in research support, meeting whom face to face is really useful. There are all sorts of tacit dimensions, especially concerning trust and collective action, which are poorly served by emails.

Four genuinely interesting topics emerged for development:  the use of electronic resources and game playing in the diagnosis and data collection especially concerning motor skills of those with dementia; the possible connection between dental hygiene and dementia; the use of tasers on the mentally ill including in clinical settings; and the wellbeing of call centre workers. All of that is a positive result for the day and it was well worth attending.

But I realised that there was also a counter-intuitive effect of the selection process, perhaps because of the initial highlighting of practical concerns for mental healthcare, perhaps because we were encouraged to see what issues emerged from conversation in groups that day rather than bringing along a prepared list of topics (as I had in case such be needed) and perhaps because we were encouraged in the morning to think very broadly or laterally and with no concern for the usual issues of what is fundable, or this year's intellectual or research fashion. This was that the connection between a topic being selected, a principal investigator being interested and possible funding streams being available came only as a matter of happy contingency. In the afternoon we were rather landed with the blue skies thinking of the morning. (Cf "That's a problem for Future-Homer. Man, I don't envy that guy!")

Voting on brainstormed topics in the abstract, rather than topics proposed explicitly by individuals, meant that there was at least a chance that what emerged wasn't researchable by those present. In my group this was only avoided by narrowing down the selected topic very dramatically and pragmatically to fit one of the two academics at the table in such a way that, sadly, the resultant topic had no obvious conceptual or philosophical spin. This makes me think that useful though the day was, it wasn't really the best way coping with the contingency and chance that often underpins new research.

What would be? Thinking back I realise that much of the philosophy of mental health I have researched, whether in the end individually or with others, has emerged from or been inspired by chance conversations but I am not sure that there is any clear pattern in the nature of the conversations. (They have not usually been started with the idea of articulating a research area in mind.) But ultimately it has never been a democratic process. That others (I mean others in general, not others to me) find a topic interesting is never, in the end, enough to motivate someone else also doing it. So shared ownership cannot be engineered by a democratic day but is a rather slower matter of seeing how topics appeal to others where, on any given day, not appealing is rather more likely than appealing. The alternative seems to be akin to a high risk speed dating session where everyone has to marry someone at the end of the process.

With this in mind, I again regret the passing from academia of the post work beer.