• 12 March 2018
  • 2 min read

Out of the towers and into the trenches

Out of the towers and into the trenches


The opportunities of citizen science in health services research

As an academic, and an academic at the University of Cambridge at that, the phrase ‘ivory tower’ breezes in my direction fairly frequently. The assumption is that I probably spend my days squirrelled away in some book-lined turret, muttering to myself, thinking about Big Ideas of no relevance to anyone. Thus, the phrase ‘ivory tower’ is “used to designate an environment of intellectual pursuit disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life” (thanks to Wikipedia).

However, as a health services researcher, I rather hoped that my “intellectual pursuit” was thoroughly connected to the practical concerns of patients, health care professionals and policy makers. Indeed, I chose this career specifically as I wanted to generate high quality evidence to make a real difference to patient and staff experiences and outcomes of care. Of course, once you are working in this space, you quickly realise it is a little more complex than that. Sadly, there isn’t a simple system that takes my Big Idea, sprinkles it with evidence, and strategically places it (suitably financed) near the relevant policy makers and providers, ready to action.

"We often fail to properly engage with those on the front line."

There are many reasons why Big Ideas gather dust. One reason, if we are honest, is that in spite of our good intentions our Big Ideas may not always tap into the major concerns of those who are providing and receiving care. Realistically, as researchers (and even as clinical researchers), we often fail to properly engage with those on the front line. Maybe we do accidentally retreat to our metaphorical musty turrets, when we should be reaching out to those who really know where the problems lie.

Solutions are at hand. What if we could have a system to bring together the real concerns of staff and patients with those of us who would like to provide insight into, and resolutions for, these concerns? Citizen science approaches involve the public in scientific research in many innovative ways. Commonly, volunteers are asked to undertake a series of micro tasks, such as classifying images from a huge data set or contributing observations to a survey. Just this January, the general public were key players in the discovery of a five-planet star system, with a unique orbiting system. But citizen science is not confined to processing findings from or contributing sightings to established research projects. It can just as easily be used to generate ideas for new scientific projects. Once established, citizens can then take part in any aspect of the research, from generating or classifying data to disseminating findings.

"Citizen science will help us bring NHS staff and patients closer to research."

Our vision at THIS Institute is that citizen science will help us bring NHS staff and patients closer to research, and researchers closer to the issues that matter. Together, we hope to generate the evidence that will improve our healthcare system. As our citizen science programme develops, I am looking forward to ensuring I am firmly out of the turret, and in the trenches with those whose work and experiences I’d like to help improve.