Health research partnerships build policy relevance



TYPE Prevention Centre News

International experience shows us that public health research is crucial to address the problems keeping health bureaucrats awake at night: the upsurge in chronic diseases, our ageing population and the imminent inability of the health system to cope with growing demand.

Yet we also know only 8 per cent to 15 per cent of research is used in policy and practice. It takes 17 years between the development of research and its use.

Policymakers want their policies to be based on evidence, but often they don’t have time to read the research, don’t know it exists or have more pressing priorities.

And while most academics hope their work will make a difference, the fact is much of it does not answer the questions policymakers have or it isn’t produced when policymakers need it most. It’s not enough to have a good idea, publish in an academic journal and hope a policymaker will use it one day.

To address this problem, countries including the US, Britain and Canada are investing in co-produced partnership research: research in which academics and the end users of the research work together every step of the way. This ensures the research is relevant from design through to implementation.

Australia’s experiment with this model has involved more than $50 million invested by the National Health and Medical Research Council as well as industry partners and other government agencies in three Partnership Centres for Better Health. These are national collaborations of policy, practice and research organisations working together to create better health services and health in various priority areas.

The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre was established in 2013 with $22.6m in funding and in-kind support from the NHMRC, the federal Department of Health, NSW Health, ACT Health and the HCF Research Foundation. With more than 150 researchers working across 37 projects nationally, we are exploring ways to prevent lifestyle-related chronic disease.

It’s not new for academics to work with policymakers but we are going beyond simple partnership research. All of our research is co-produced; projects have to be formulated with policymakers in the room.

For example, we brought together childhood obesity experts from government, the health sector and academe, and combined their insights with data and evidence to produce a computer simulation modelling tool that enables policymakers to plug in different policies and see within seconds what the outcomes would be on the real-world population of NSW.

Projects such as this tick all the boxes: they’re timely, they bring together diverse evidence sources in a user-friendly way and, above all, they’re relevant.

Engaging in co-production has never been done on this scale in Australia before. At this week’s World Congress on Public Health in Melbourne, we’re releasing the first data on how the model is working in practice.

For the NHMRC, the partnership centre model has been a new way of ensuring long-term investment in the continuum of research from discovery through clear communication to action. In contrast to more traditional researcher-initiated grant schemes, the joint funding arrangement between the NHMRC and industry partners has resulted in a doubling of the research funding made available through NHMRC.

Working within this model has meant our research has focused on areas of interest to policy agencies. We have been able to address complex problems in ways that would not have been possible without the size of the collaboration, its national reach and the diversity of expertise.

One of our strengths is that funds can be used to co-ordinate and support relationships between different teams, synthesise new knowledge from different projects, build capacity among researchers and policymakers, and support the translation of findings into policy. We have created a vibrant network of early and mid-career researchers interested in prevention of chronic disease, and we have turned diverse evidence sources into a suite of accessible, user-friendly evidence projects targeted at policymakers.

Researchers have benefited from working in this way, too, by being able to conduct their research in an innovative research space with direct access to senior policymakers, academics and national reach.

There have been challenges, not least the cultural change required by many: academics generally are not used to working to policy partners’ agendas, while those in government have sometimes needed research findings more quickly than is feasible in an academic setting.

Co-production can be time-consuming and difficult to maintain. And it took us much longer than anticipated to forge the vital relationships that make our collaboration work.

We believe the partnership centre approach addresses a gap in the Australian research environment. It has created an opportunity for high-quality, timely and innovative research that is relevant for policy and practice. To ensure this is sustained, it will be necessary for Australia to maintain its commitment to large-scale research-policy practice partnerships such as ours.

This article first appeared in The Australian, April 5, 2017