Why we are stronger together

The experience of our world collaboration is showing how partnerships across disciplines, sectors and agencies can reap important benefits for research, policy, practice, and, ultimately, for the community.

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Professor Lucie Rychetnik

Australia’s investment in large-scale researchpolicy-practice collaborations is producing research that is more innovative, timely and relevant than that produced under traditional funding structures, according to the experience of The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre (Prevention Centre) and its affiliated Centres of Research Excellence (CREs).

The Prevention Centre’s Co-Director, Professor Lucie Rychetnik, says its experience over eight years has shown there is great value for both researchers and governments when working in partnership.

“While Australia is leading the world in many areas of public health research, it has traditionally been difficult to translate the evidence into policy or practice to reduce the rate of chronic disease,” Professor Rychetnik says.

The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre

The Prevention Centre was established in 2013 as an NHMRC partnership centre focused on applying systems approaches to the prevention of chronic disease. The pooled funding model allows the partners to invest in policy-relevant research that addresses prevention priorities that are shared across jurisdictions and agencies. The current policy funding partners are the Commonwealth Department of Health, NSW Ministry of Health, ACT Health, Tasmania Department of Health, Wellbeing SA, Cancer Council Australia and VicHealth, with the NHMRC contributing matched funds to boost research capacity.

A core requirement for all the research projects supported through the Prevention Centre (40 completed and 26 underway) is that they are co-designed, and wherever possible co-produced, by researchers working together with the policy partners. This approach has helped ensure the work is relevant and timely for those working in prevention.

It has also enabled the Prevention Centre to fund more ground-breaking and innovative work than would be possible under more traditional funding models.

“For example, in 2016 we funded the development of new participatory approaches to dynamic simulation modelling to forecast and compare the outcomes of chronic disease prevention policies and programs. We’ve been able
to support and expand such work on different topics and jurisdictions, including nationally,” says Professor Rychetnik.

Partnering with CREs – the Collaboration for Enhanced Research Impact

In 2020, the Prevention Centre and four NHMRC CREs joined forces to trial a new Collaboration for Enhanced Research Impact (CERI). This initiative aims to develop a more united voice on evidence-informed prevention by leveraging the joint expertise across its member organisations, as well as drawing on their policy, practice and community collaborations (see factsheet).

CERI also aims to boost the capacity of its members by supporting early and mid-career researchers in prevention; for example, by sharing resources, networks and opportunities across the member organisations.

CERI’s member organisations already have established collaborations spanning state, territory and national jurisdictions, including with numerous health departments, non-government organisations, Local Health Districts and other service providers, Primary Health Networks, Aboriginal-controlled health organisations, community and social services, food retailers, education and other academic institutions.

By coming together, they aim to consolidate these networks, synthesise what they have learnt, break down disciplinary and sectoral silos, and produce more consistent and powerful messages about what is important for the prevention of chronic disease.

‘Relational infrastructure’ is a key to successful partnerships

The experience of the Prevention Centre and the CERI members highlights that, while research-policy-practice partnerships are essential for research impact, they require dedicated investment in relational infrastructure such as
central coordination, convening, and networking functions.

The Prevention Centre and CERI have shared some valuable lessons for supporting successful research-policy-practice collaborations, based on their experience.

Working in partnership does not always come naturally. It often requires new skills from both researchers and partners, and additional investments of time and resources. It also requires flexibility, and dedicated leadership to drive and support the collaborations.

Professor Helen Skouteris

An adequately resourced coordinating function is needed to work in partnership. Provision for this should be included in research funding models. Partnerships rely on longer-term investments in, and support for, individuals who work across practice, policy and research environments – for example, by more explicitly recognising this work in position descriptions and award structures.

Professor Helen Skouteris, Director of the Health in Preconception and Pregnancy CRE, says CERI’s member organisations are prioritising their partnerships to boost the impact of research into chronic disease prevention.

“A continued and expanded investment will see the prevention landscape transformed into one where researchers, policy makers and practitioners are genuinely working together to increase the impact of our research and thus reduce the burden of chronic disease in Australia,” says Professor Skouteris.

Acknowledgement: This story was first published in the 20th edition of Research Australia’s Inspire Magazine (p. 62).