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How does DECIPHer build its research capacity?

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PhD student Amy Simpson examines the methods we use to support and grow education research

Amy Simpson

As part of a six-month internship at the Welsh Government, I conducted an evidence review titled Developing education research capacity and volume in higher education: A review of evidence from selected case study countries. The evidence review compromised of a literature review and informal interviews with stakeholders within the education system from each of the case study countries. The review adopted a geographical case study approach whereby educational research capacity and volume across six case study countries was examined (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Ontario and The United Arab Emirates).  

Upon analysis of government-led education research capacity strategies alongside examination of individual university strategies to support research capacity building and volume, I came to appreciate that DECIPHer implements a range of initiatives, strategies and programmes to support research capacity building. Subsequently, I added DECIPHer as a Wales specific case study within the evidence review. Whilst the centre’s primary concern is public health, health and education are intrinsically connected and therefore much of DECIPHer’s research is conducted within the school setting. Moreover, much of the centre’s work involves collaborating with, or researching, those in the education system, whether that is young people themselves, school staff or those within public services.  

The following network, programmes and initiatives provide ten examples of the ways in which the centre supports the development of research volume and capacity. 

1. Public Health Improvement Research Networks (PHIRNS) 

The centre has developed three high-impact networks – PHIRN, SHRN and ALPHA – which work with policymakers and practitioners in the early stages of research to generate research questions and promote naturalistic experiments. Since 2005, this approach has secured £50 million of research income through the implementation and encouragement of the following strategies: 

  • Establishment of local, regional, national and international strategic partnerships. 
  • Development of transdisciplinary capacity through short course provision and placements. 
  • Engagement and co-production of research through research development groups. 
  • Pilot work with workplaces such as Public Health Wales.  
2. The School Health Research Network (SHRN) 

SHRN is the largest network of its kind in the world and brings together mainstream secondary schools in Wales, academic researchers, policy-makers and practitioners from health, education and social care to promote an evidence-informed approach to improving young people’s health and wellbeing in the school setting. The network has recruited all mainstream, state-maintained secondary schools in Wales and some independent schools have opted to become members. The network schools biannually complete the bilingual Student Health and Wellbeing Survey and the School Environment Questionnaire. SHRN connects and disseminates research findings via individual school research briefings, aggregated national reports, webinars and termly newsletters. 

3. Advice Leading to Public Health Advancement (ALPHA) 

Developed by DECIPHer, ALPHA is an advisory group compromising of a group of young people aged 14-25 living in Wales. ALPHA advises researchers by discussing and debating their views on public health areas and the researchers’ plans. ALPHA is primarily run by a public involvement officer and with the support of a youth worker. The advisory group has been involved in a range of projects, including research on alcohol advertising, drug prevention, school-based health promotion, sexual health, and suicide and self-harm. ALPHA is also active on social media and has a Twitter account where it connects with, and disseminates information to, academics, policy makers and the public. 

4. Research Development Group (RIDG) 

The centre has four programmes of research and priority areas which are overseen by lead investigators who are experts within each area. Monthly meetings are held focusing on one of the research programmes, with the meetings providing an opportunity to discuss the progress of projects and develop grant applications. The four areas are as follows: 

5. Cardiff University Research Opportunities Placement (CUROP) 

CUROP is a university-wide programme that offers summer placements to undergraduate students within a university research environment, working with supervision on staff-defined research projects. The placement offers paid work experience to undergraduates. DECIPHer has hosted many CUROP students, offering them the opportunity to attend and engage in formal and academic activities at the centre (E.g. DECIPHer forums and Health Challenge Wales Seminars) as well to benefit from a wealth of theoretical and methodological expertise. Blogs on students’ CUROP placements can be found here

6. PhD Mentoring Group 

The PhD mentoring group is facilitated by an early-career researcher within the centre and supports and provides guidance to PGR students. The group meets bi-monthly; discussion topics have previously included how to write an academic paper and how to format and structure a thesis.  

7. Supporting research staff progression 

Research staff career progression is supported in a number of ways. This includes: 

  • DECIPHer-led grant applications of £500k or less typically include at least one junior researcher as a co-investigator. 
  • Post-doctoral staff typically gain experience on a small number of projects as named staff or investigator, and are supported to apply for personal fellowships, providing opportunities to prepare them for leading their own independent work. 
  • The centre has a research-led teaching lead who has strategic oversight of DECIPHer’s teaching contribution and manages the centre’s internal allocation of teaching. 
8. Hosting student and practitioner placements and secondments 

DECIPHer hosts a range of student and practitioner placements and secondments.  

  • International Placements: The centre hosts students and academics from across the world. 
  • Bi-directional placement and secondments: Students and academic staff are encouraged to undergo placements and secondments at external organisations. 
  • Co-location of researchers: The centre encourages the co-location of academics across schools within the university as well as the co-location of academics and students across external organisations such as Public Health Wales. 
9. DECIPHer short courses 

DECIPHER runs three short courses annually: Developing and Evaluating Complex Public Health Interventions, Process Evaluation of Complex Interventions and Public Involvement Training. Methodological guidance developed by DECIPHer has led to it providing research capacity development through training to academics, policy and practice stakeholders. 

10. DECIPHer website and Twitter account 

The centre recognises the importance of an online presence via the DECIPHER website and Twitter. The bilingual website provides an overview of the centre, its networks, research aims, publications, short courses and personal bios on DECIPHer academic staff and PGR tutors. 

Further details on research capacity building in Wales will be available in the full evidence review which has contributed towards the National Strategy for Education Research and Enquiry (published in due course).