Beth Collinson is the Learning and Impact Associate for the Fulfilling Lives programme. In this blog, she reflects on an open letter to researchers she recently read, reminding us of our accountability.

Alongside my work with Fulfilling Lives, since 2019 I have coordinated the Sheffield Addiction Recovery Research Panel (ShARRP). ShARRP is a public and patient involvement panel whose aim is to empower those with first-hand experience of substance use to shape how research in the field is undertaken. The panel is made up of those with personal experience of drug and alcohol use; carers, partners and family members of those affected by drug and alcohol use; as well as advocates for addiction recovery and harm reduction. Whilst the panel is situated in Sheffield, it has worked with researchers from all over the UK.

Whilst ShARRP is unique in what is does (when it was founded in 2014 by Andy Irving, it was the first of its kind in the UK to focus on substance use related research), it is one of many public and patient involvement panels across the country. In Sheffield, we are fortunate to be linked into a network of other public and patient involvement panels through Sheffield Teaching Hospitals – all of which help to ensure researchers are held accountable for their work and most importantly, make sure that those with first-hand experience are at the heart of what they do.

Last week I received an open letter from another public and patient involvement panel. The letter is written by an individual who has been a member of the Sheffield Motor Neurone Disease Research Advisory Group until recently, “when he took the difficult decision to step back from the group due to his deteriorating speech and finding it difficult to communicate” (see news article which accompanies the open letter here). Upon stepping down from the panel, he included a final thought to researchers. Whilst the letter is specific to motor neuron disease researchers, I believe it is worth sharing further afield in the hope that it encourages other researchers to reflect on their practice and, as it did for myself, motivates them to push further and faster.

The letter can be read here.

I found the letter exceptionally powerful and the final paragraph in particular hit home. As a researcher myself, I feel we must be held accountable for the work we do. I have always been a firm believer that research must be undertaken and disseminated in a way which makes a difference (whether that be to motor neuron disease, addiction, multiple disadvantage, or whatever field you work in). When I previously worked as a lecturer in Criminology, this was always the first question I’d ask to dissertation students: and so what? What do you hope the impact of your research to be? How will it make a difference? For me, this question never changes – no matter how qualified or experienced you are – if we are not doing our jobs to make the world a better place, then what are we in it for?

The open letter made me reflect on my own practice and think about the ways in which I can strive to be better and do better, and I hope that through this blog, I can perhaps spark something similar amongst other researchers.