Dr Jenny Baverstock, University of Southampton

“True success in interdisciplinary working is when disciplines understand each other’s jokes”*

Finding solutions and then delivering them to improve the quality of the air we breathe outside and inside is a “wicked problem” requiring many different talents and skills working together. As Strategic Priorities Fund UKRI Clean Air Programme Champions and working with others in the programme (Met Office and NPL), we have held several knowledge exchange events over the last year, which have been carefully coordinated to promote shared perspectives. With ESRC as hosts, we have also been meeting regularly with the champions from the other UKRI SPF programmes. Together we’ve been “comparing notes” and discussing a range of tools to foster interdisciplinary working and stakeholder engagement as a key invaluable part of our work.

These exciting steps to open up new ways of working and interacting are bringing greater plurality to tackling the Clean Air challenge. In terms of working together in interdisciplinary ways, some important principles have emerged:

• Taking time and preparing – but also building on existing Knowledge Exchange events and networks.
• Communicating – be aware of breaking down jargon between disciplines and ensure that gaps in understanding are covered.
• Adapting to embrace individualities – be flexible.
• Sharing expertise and values – hold sandpit events, e.g. for proposal writing – with opportunities for collaboration between disciplines.
• Respecting and facilitating exchange between disciplines – there are “silver linings” of the current Covid-19 situation with the research community thinking about how to do things differently e.g., via videos and podcasts where projects can learn more about each other.
• Creating ownership and incentives – to be appealing to different communities.
• Building from the top (steering committee) and the bottom together – interdisciplinary communities need both.

As an example of effective interdisciplinary research, it is worth looking at the groundbreaking work of the Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) programme and its strong mandate to engage stakeholders and provide knowledge exchange to remind ourselves of the importance of the enrolment and inclusion of non-academics in research. The stakeholder engagement approaches and mechanisms they analysed were found to be closely related to perceptions of emerging impacts, both on the stakeholders and research projects.

In June the Clean Air SPF Annual Conference brought together all researchers currently funded in the programme as well as external stakeholders to help create essential connectivity to the programme. At this virtual event, we were keen to provide a platform for early- to mid-career researchers to engage across the programme with interdisciplinarity as part of their experience.

Our recent Data Science in Air Quality and Health workshop – brought many disciplines together and started the process in building connections between the data available in air quality and raising awareness of other datasets such at the Clinical Practice Research Datalink, a real-world research service supporting retrospective and prospective public health studies. Prof Anna Hansell (Chair of COMEAP) with experience of bringing atmospheric pollution and health together, highlighted the time taken to integrate air pollution and health data – up to two years. It is encouraging to see progress in this area and for our workshop, we built an online network for those interested in air quality data and health – go ahead and sign up!

In terms of new connections, the Champions have been increasing our connections with health practitioners, this is an important area for the programme, and we have been making linkages via the Royal College of General Practitioners. About 90% of all NHS contacts occur in primary care and in a 2018 count, there were 7012 open and active practices. In terms of public interaction with air quality, primary care has the capability to reach patients and assist in their health choices. I have been delighted to be working with Professor Phil Evans (University of Exeter), my former NIHR colleague, who joined us at our Joining Forces to Improve Air Quality and Health workshop. In his presentation, Phil presented the concept of air quality as a non-communicable disease. Recently a five-year study in Lambeth found that increases in air pollution result in major increases in respiratory GP consultations and inhaler prescriptions following short-term increases in exposure to NO2, PM10 and PM2.5. This is important as although the associations of outdoor air pollution exposure with mortality and hospital admissions are well established, the magnitude of air pollution’s impact on primary care clinical and prescribing data is revealing.

GPs are trusted representatives in the community and are building networks to help their patients with environmental impacts on health www.greenimpact.org.uk/giforhealth but need solutions from air quality research to help engage patients with understanding air quality and health. We are anticipating and looking forward to building more work in future partnerships with primary care and other health professionals in the SPF programme. Such connections might incorporate social prescribing. This involves helping patients to improve their health, wellbeing and social welfare by connecting them to community services which might be run by the council or a local charity e.g. local swimming, cycling and health walk clubs. Indeed, NERC’s own recent survey of diverse group of members of the public showed that they wanted to see research that empowers communities with knowledge and encourages behaviour change. There is growing interest in use of the Behavioural Change Wheel using the COM-B model to help design interventions. It is worth stating that behaviour change to improve the life-giving air we breathe will occur only if they see the new behaviour as easy, rewarding, empowering and normal. In taking greater ownership of the air pollution problem as trusted messengers, health professions have an important role to play in this process of knowledge transfer, just as they did with banning smoking in enclosed workplaces and public spaces.

  • *Quote from Professor Anna Hansell speaking at Data Science in Air Quality and Health: Bringing together data to improve air quality for the health of the nation workshop, 16th-17th September 2021
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