Health and Environment Public Engagement group

Published on: 28 July 2015

HEPE used public engagement to influence the Beach Bums research project

People’s real life experience of issues are helping University of Exeter researchers plan and carry out more meaningful studies and communicate their finding more appropriately.

The Health and Environment Public Engagement group (HEPE), comprised of members of the public from Cornwall, is working with academics at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH) to shape their research.

HEPE have already had a significant influence over the approaches used for the Beach Bum project – a research study looking at whether surfers are more likely to carry bacteria resistant to antibiotics than other people; this will help us to understand the role of environmental sources for such bacteria. Dr Ruth Garside, Senior Lecturer in Evidence Synthesis, explained: "Participation in the study involves a self-administered rectal swab so we knew it was really important to get information about the project and recruitment approaches right. HEPE’s input was invaluable. They read and refined information sheets, designed graphics and proposed innovative solutions to recruiting the control group; by anticipating possible public concerns, we hope to enhance recruitment to the study."

She added: "It is that kind of input which we find really valuable so members of the public will be involved throughout this research."

Engagement with the public is important for research because both the academics and the public benefit from the collaboration, Dr Garside explained: "From a research perspective, I genuinely believe that it makes our work better; we get a different point of view, a different perspective from the one we’re used to.

"I also think that there’s an ethical imperative - most of us get funds which are, ultimately, public funds. From that perspective, we have a duty to involve the public to make sure that the questions we’re asking are relevant and, if we are involving people as participants in the study, that they have a say in how it is done.

"In terms of the long term impact, if your research is more grounded in public concerns, you are more likely to be doing work which is meaningful and impactful."

Dr Garside went on to explain how more public involvement in research can be encouraged. She said: "We need to be doing practical things which help bring people into the university who don’t work or study here. By giving training and running workshops for members of the public we can help give people tools which allow them to critically evaluate science headlines in the news and help them to engage with research in the university world."

HEPE began 18 months ago and the team of volunteers meet quarterly, to discuss new research projects planned by academics at the ECEHH, and to comment on outward facing materials that relate to such research.

In addition to helping shape the ECEHH research programme, the HEPE group are also involved in the review and dissemination of previous studies which need to be accessible, outside of the academic world. For example, as part of the Expert Advisory Group for a systematic review about older people and physical activity, members of HEPE will help to shape outputs to ensure they are relevant and meaningful. The group have modelled the way they involve the public in research on PenCLAHRC’s Public and Patient Involvement group.

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