Research and mental health nursing

Over on the Mental Health Nurse Academics UK blog, the group’s chair Dr Michael Coffey writes:

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) looms large for many of us. This is part of the regular round of judging of peer-reviewed research publications on which the UK government bases its decisions on distribution of institutional research funding. Decisions within Higher Education Institutions are being made around now on who is considered returnable and then whether it is strategically advantageous to submit these researchers in the exercise. For individual research careers these decisions weigh heavy. For the profession of mental health nursing there may be wider implications. Previous research assessment exercises have seen more and more evidence of mental health nurses being returned. This has undoubtedly led to an improved profile within individual universities and recognition of the contribution of research to improving the experience of people using mental health services.  There remain significant opportunities for mental health nurse researchers to contribute and bring to bear a professional view on what needs researching and how this should be conducted. We will have to wait until 2014 for an idea of what the landscape will look like in relation to mental health nursing. One thing for sure is that we need a highly engaged mental health nurse academic workforce to continue to provide high quality education and research. By doing this we can make a meaningful contribution to the development of mental health care both here in the UK and beyond.

Nursing certainly did do well in the UK’s last Research Assessment Exercise, the precursor to the REF to which Michael refers in his post. Results for all higher education institutions submitting to Unit of Assessment (UoA) 11 (Nursing and Midwifery) in RAE 2008 can be found here. In his subject overview report for UoA11, Professor Hugh McKenna of Ulster University ended with this:

In conclusion, the sub-panel members were very impressed with most of the submissions they reviewed and with the pervasive pattern of world-leading and internationally excellent research. There are many models of good practice from which developing research groupings can learn in terms of research activities, outputs, environment and esteem. It is clear that investment by Governments, funding bodies and universities has increased research capacity and developed research leaders capable of undertaking nursing and midwifery research that is internationally excellent and world leading. These funding streams need to be sustained and enhanced if the upward trajectory and momentum are to continue and if the quality differentials between the strongest and weakest departments are to be addressed.

And, when the results from the last RAE were published in December 2008, The Guardian ran an article titled Nursing research takes its place on world stage. Here it said:

Nursing, for many years medicine’s poor relation, has come of age in the 2008 research assessment exercise (RAE). Academics in the field can justifiably claim to be world-leading in terms of research. Nursing and midwifery was among the subjects with the most highly rated research in the results published today.

Heady stuff indeed, and testimony to years of hard work, strategy, and capacity-building investment. All this does, though, seem an awful long time ago. As Michael reminds us in his MHNAUK post, attention has long since turned to preparations and prospects for REF 2014.

I have written about nursing and the Research Excellence Framework 2014 on this site before, drawing attention to the workload facing members of UoA A3 (Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy) and to the challenges of demonstrating and assessing ‘impact’. So, as we hurtle towards the deadline for REF submission, in what shape does UK mental health nursing research find itself?

Readers of this blog will know that this is a question that MHNAUK is also asking, and is seeking an answer to in organised fashion. Professor Len Bowers led a discussion on this at the MHNAUK meeting held in Cardiff last March. When the group reconvened in Liverpool in June, Dr Fiona Nolan asked members for items to include in her planned survey of research activity and capacity.

Whilst we await findings from Fiona’s project in the first instance, my personal view is that there is much to celebrate in mental health nursing research but also room for development. A small number of universities are home to strong and established research groups. Leaders of these have built national and international collaborations across disciplinary and institutional boundaries. They have laboured to secure funding in open competition and to complete and publish studies with real implications for policy, services, education and practice. This is excellent progress, and I think we now need more of this type of activity across more universities. This means people (and I include myself here) extending their ambition, and perhaps being a little bolder. As an example, early next year the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme invites a first round of applications for funding. How excellent it would be for mental health nurses in the UK to be leading, and collaborating on, high-quality bids submitted there.

My more general reading of the field is that, in many universities, mental health nurse researchers are thinly spread. I’ll bet that in most of the sixty-plus universities represented at MHNAUK the number of people predominantly involved in teaching far outstrips the number predominantly engaged in research. Teaching is important – really important – but the lone researcher in a team of teachers is in a tough place indeed. As I cast an eye around the departments I am most familiar with I also wonder where the younger mental health nurse researchers are. How many mental health nurses in their 20s are studying for PhDs? If the answer is ‘not many’, then what should we collectively be doing to make research a viable, and attractive, career proposition for nurses at the start of their careers? How might we nurture a future generation of mental health nursing clinical academics?

Anyway: all is speculation until we have some evidence. The MHNAUK survey, I anticipate, will paint a more rounded and complete picture of the true state of research activity and capacity than will the Research Excellence Framework. The REF, being what it is, is subject to all sorts of inter- and intra-institutional politicking and will produce only a partial view of what’s really going on.

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