Researchers and the public as ‘thinking partners’…


talking and thinking

Why there’s no ‘method’ for involvement

At its most basic, involvement is a conversation between researchers, patients, carers and the public, that leads to two-way learning and ultimately to better decisions and new ideas. It’s just talking and thinking. They’re ‘thinking partners’.

But researchers often ask me ‘What’s the best method for involvement?’ My answer is ‘There isn’t one’. A method is a fixed set of steps that researchers follow that will give the same answer, no matter who follows them. That’s not true of involvement. It absolutely matters which researcher does the involvement, because what each researcher learns from the experience will be different. It all depends on what that particular researcher doesn’t know at the start, and what assumptions he/she has made.

When I look back to when I was a wee molecular biologist, I realise I spent a lot of my time just talking and thinking, only some of my time was spent doing the test tube stuff. I had very many ‘thinking partners’ including my supervisors, my team mates, other people in my department, people in other parts of the university, people in other universities, researchers in the UK and researchers in other countries. If I was doing it now, patients and carers would be included in that group.

My sense is that all these ‘thinking partners’ do similar things – they help the researcher to come up with new ideas, to avoid potential pitfalls, to solve problems, to make better informed choices about the direction of research and to help make sense of the findings. Sometimes the most important thing they do is to confirm that all is well.

So this way of working is not new for researchers. It is commonplace and every day. But researchers never seem to ask ‘What’s the best method for me to talk with my colleagues?’ In fact, you can do it in all sorts of ways, including:

  • In one-to-one meetings in an office
  • Over coffee in a café
  • In the tea room at work
  • In formal team meetings
  • In informal team meetings
  • As part of a Steering group
  • In departmental talks
  • At conferences – in the lunch queue, at a poster, at a talk, in a panel session, in the bar
  • And very often in the pub on a Friday night

I think all of these could work equally well in learning from patient, carer and public thinking partners! If involvement is just more of the same, then questions about how to do it are much easier to answer. It all depends on the conversation you want to have and the people you want to talk to – no fixed steps, just talking and thinking.

Blog post #1: PPI. Learning it is. What can Yoda teach us about involvement in research?


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