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'Where did I put my glasses?' How the public provide expert vision for health and social care researchers and how you can help


Jennifer Bostock reflects on her experiences as a public contributor, helping shape research over the last decade, and encourages others to get involved by applying to join an NIHR committee.

It seems like five minutes ago, but it was actually over 10 years ago, when I saw an advert for my local hospital urging patients to attend a meeting to share experiences of having surgery.
Eager to have my say, I went along to the session - which aimed to help the hospital improve their surgical services. I shared a few positive and a few not so positive encounters I’d had as a patient who has frequent surgery. So it began, me ‘having my say’, which I’ve been having ever since - mainly in the health research arena.

I’ve spent eight of those years serving as a public member on NIHR funding committees having my say on research applications in a variety of areas of healthcare.

From cold to warmer feet

When I dipped my toe into funding committee membership, I did so with rather ‘cold feet’, worried that I wouldn’t have anything valuable to say, that my questions would be silly and my remarks irrelevant but as you can tell eight years on, my feet have warmed up considerably.

My experience with the NIHR has been great, I’ve learned loads, contributed loads (not all of it useful I’m sure) and seen the NIHR grow and develop in more ways than I have words to mention.

As a reviewer, I’ve sat on more than four funding committees. They are all interesting in their own ways but one that stands out is the NIHR’s Invention for Innovation (i4i) Programme, where incredibly clever inventors present their amazing inventions. I liken it to a sort of health research Dragons’ Den without the cash or the Dragons!

The incredible ‘talking spectacles’

I recall someone coming along with a brilliant idea to help blind people see by some innovative things that I naively refer to as ‘glasses’.  The panel quizzed the applicant on all manner of things relating to science, medicine and patent laws. During this, I had a nagging voice in my head urging me to ask a very elementary question, but one I felt confident was important.  At the time, my father was going blind and as I sat listening to the presentation and the wonder of modern science, I wondered “how will they be used in practice at home?” 

So I simply asked, “If my father is in the kitchen and the ‘glasses’ are upstairs in the bathroom, how will he find them - bearing in mind he is blind?”  A pause entered proceedings quickly and then came a recognition from the inventor that actually he had not considered this. I urged him to find a method of alerting the blind person to where they had left the ‘glasses’.

I sat back relieved that my question was not laughed out of the room, relieved that most people appeared to recognise the importance of the question and very grateful that the inventor had the confidence to admit in a room full of people that he had not considered such an elementary question.  I need say no more than this example to say why I feel PPI is important.

Simple questions – transforming answers

My advice for anyone thinking about joining a funding committee is just go for it: the fact that you are thinking about it means you must be interested in research and your experience as a patient, carer, or member of the public is just what the committees need. My very top tip is always remember that no question is too simple, no comment too naïve, and no experience is good, bad or indifferent without value.

Jennifer Bostock, NIHR Public Contributor

Jennifer has been a member of committees for NIHR’s Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB), Public Health Research (PHR) and Health Services and Delivery Research (HS&DR) programmes and TCC (now NIHR Academy) Post-Doc Fellowship.

NIHR is currently recruiting for patients, carers and members of the public to join committees. More information is available on the NIHR website.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.