There and back again. The Ivory Tower

Hazel Booth

A blogpost by Hazel Booth, Research Coordinator, Drugs Research Network Scotland

I’m pretty old and this is not my first rodeo. I first went to Uni in 1984. Going to Uni then was a big deal, especially where I grew up. Google didn’t exist, let alone Google Scholar. My Uni department didn’t have a website and it certainly didn’t have CINAHL. I wrote up my undergrad assignments by hand. In those days if I wanted to check out a journal paper I had to go to the library and fire up the microfiche machine (2). From there, I’d have to rake through walls of dusty boxes until I found the paper I needed. It was an athletic business clambering over the shelves. The barriers then were physical and technological and it was a wonder that my 18 year-old self bothered to cite anything at all. After all, I had a party to get to. So many parties.

Wind forward nearly three decades. My engagement with research had slowed to little more than knowing that the grease I slathered on my skin was efficacious for 70% of people. I only knew that because an advert told me. I was almost entirely research ignorant. That’s why, when I was asked to write a blog about the value of research throughout the course of my working life, I was anxious because for the first umpteen+ years it meant absolutely nothing at all. I didn’t even think about it. Nada. Rien de tout. Zilch. I’d argue that most of the people around me were the same. Research wasn’t something the person on the street bothered with.

I was in my 40s when research came back into my life. I’d worked in a job that made a little bit inside me die with every passing day, so I went back to Uni to fire up a dream I’d had long ago. So much had changed. The barriers to knowledge were gone. Microfiches had gone on the scrapheap and everything I needed to know was a keystroke away. This time round, I worked hard at my studies. A love of research nabbed me when I was looking the other way. At the time my eyes were focused on a prize as a mental health nurse. In a first year lecture my cohort were introduced to ‘the value of research’. My peers drew doodles and yawned. Like me at 18, research was for them a necessary evil. It was something they did for assignments. After they qualified, they reckoned research would take a back seat. Little did they know it was to be a mandatory feature of their professional lives. In that lecture I learned the value of research in terms of evidence-based practice and I was hooked. I learned that if not for research nurses would still be wasting everybody’s time and doing all sorts of harm and dispensing care that wasn’t proven to work. I wanted to be a researcher because I wanted effort to be productive.

Ten years on as I travel the path to that research goal, I realise I have changed. I’ve been taught to think critically. I take so little at face-value anymore. I know all the caveats to a boldly stated conclusion. I have insight into the complexities of our inter-connected world and its vicious problems. I write differently, using the compound terms I’ve learned to convey convoluted ideas in the limited wordcounts I generally have. I’ve been reaching for my induction into the ivory tower by displaying badges of language, critique and rarefied conceptual thinking. Yet for all that I’m a very different person, I’m not so long in this world that I’ve forgotten myself as the research ingenue I was. Nowadays I/we live in a time of information. There is no excuse for being poorly informed as I was for years. Knowledge is accessible for everyone.

Or is it?

I encountered barriers in the 80s, but there are barriers still. It’s too lazy to blame the lay-person for their lack of understanding. Pseudo-research sits in the Google multiverse on pages that are far more easily accessible – literally and metaphorically – than the stuff coming out of Universities. These days the value of research is often counted in £ and paywalls. Do researchers assume that everybody can balance up conflicting evidence? Do they assume that everybody can inspect their positionality, values, bias and their need to believe in simple answers? Do they believe that most can penetrate the language that persists even in ‘lay summaries’, or that people understand the nuance and caveats and the morass of uncertainty in the world? Conducting research in the ivory tower then flinging it out the window, sitting back and hoping the knowledge speaks for itself doth butter no parsnips. It is more vital than ever to counter the misinformation which is so readily available, but engagement is a whole new skill base. For all that is written about the death of the expert, I find myself wondering if the expert has played a part in their own downfall. Researchers want to share their knowledge, but it’s not an easy knowledge to share with those who don’t live in their world. I know that the DRNS is trying hard to learn and share in partnership. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with them. Here I see a genuine move towards engagement, genuine engagement. Roundtables involving people working at the coal face, researching alongside people who have lived/living experience, and events to share findings with anybody that’s interested (coming soon to an Eventbrite near you). I wish more did the same. It’s a shame it’s still extraordinary. After years of climbing the ivory tower contemporary researchers have an additional task to learn; how to live in the ivory tower but keep one foot firmly planted on the ground.

  1. With apologies to Tolkien
  2. Ask your parents, possibly your grandparents ????

About the author

Hazel is the Research Coordinator for the Drugs Research Network Scotland. She is also in the final stages of her PhD and says she is very, very tired. She says she hopes she’ll be allowed in the ivory tower when she gets there but promises to stay grounded.

Categories: Blog series, Importance of EvidencePublished On: March 30, 2022

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