27/11/2012 05:38 GMT | Updated 26/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Community Engaged Research

Universities are an integral part of their community. As places of learning and research they have a commitment to help tackle the challenges of society. At Plymouth we do this through our Community Research Awards programme - by engaging our community to develop solutions with us.

Plymouth University's Vice-Chancellor's Community Research Awards are designed to connect the University's world-class researchers with our local community, to enable research into questions of importance to community groups.

There is a huge demand for community engaged - socially relevant research. Since their launch in 2008 the Awards have enabled research expertise at Plymouth University to make a real difference to our community, whilst generating valuable research opportunities.

Local charities, community organisations and social enterprises are invited to complete a short application form outlining the research questions that they would like addressed in order to help them fulfil their mission.

At Plymouth, seed corn funding through its Community Research Awards programme enables research teams and community groups to work together to tackle such research issues coming from the community.

The University has invested over £200,000 in this scheme over the last four years. This funding acts as a catalyst for encouraging University researchers to engage with community groups, working together on challenges relevant to society.

Over the last four years, the Awards have delivered relevant research solutions for our community and their legacy is evident not just thanks to the impact they have through the fund, but also the way that our partners have been able to build sustainably upon the initial work. In many cases, these small amounts of University funding has led to larger sums of research monies, building research capacity in areas and demonstrating impact regionally and beyond.

For example, the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) applied for a University Community Research Award to help it provide the high level of research it needed to back up its bid to the Big Lottery Fund in order to secure its immediate future and cement plans to develop the service into a nationwide provision. The University's research helped the charity to successfully secure the £350,000 it needed to offer practical and emotional help to newly-paralysed people across the country, working in over 450 hospitals and rehabilitation centres.

Many of these challenges are multidisciplinary in nature and need expertise from across the University. These Awards can also present an opportunity for researchers, from a wide range of disciplines to work together.

For example in 2009, a researcher from the University's Law School and another from the Faculty of Health and Education submitted a proposal for a Plymouth University Community Research Award.

This proposal explored the area of early dementia awareness and the how best to train GPs in diagnosis of the symptoms. The project would also consider the type and quality of support offered by GPs to individuals and their carers. This was closely linked to the National Dementia Strategy and was developed in collaboration with the Alzheimer Society, but also involving the Health Trusts and Age Concern.

Over the last three years this award has led to a regional dementia care conference involving around two hundred professionals involved in managing dementia care in the South West, increased media awareness, an opportunity to advise Government on Dementia Friendly Communities and helped to position Plymouth University as a leader in dementia research and community outreach.

The Plymouth model was based on a scheme run at Hiroshima University, but there are others across the world working in similar ways. The University of Virginia runs a similar programme to Plymouth and involves their students in developing the research project.

Plymouth's experience with the awards has been spectacular and has includes multiple and unexpected benefits from engaging in community-based research. At the University these awards are valuable in broadening the scope and perspective of existing research and have continued to attract larger sums of funding from a variety of sources. At the same time, community groups, the people who work with these issues on a day-to-day basis are deeply involved in developing the solutions.

In 2012, six community projects - ranging from an investigation into water pollution in urban nature reserves, to examining the grieving process of young children in a bid to prevent psychological ill health in later life - were chosen as winners of this research programme.

It is this community-led approach that will solve the societal problems of today and find solutions for the challenges of tomorrow - as the saying goes 'think global - act local'.