The mental health research matters team spoke to Philippa Hemmings, Head of Healthcare technologies at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. We wanted to find out more about why they want to fund more mental health research, interdisciplinary research and the role of engineering and physical sciences in mental health research.
Catch the podcast on the mental elf SoundCloud, and read the transcript below.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, otherwise known as the EPSRC are used to and known for funding research into things like artificial intelligence, astronomy, and particle technology, to name a few.
But mental health research? Perhaps not so much. Well, that seems to be changing.
As the mental health crisis continues to advance, and with the growing acknowledgement that our mental health is affected by everything around us, there is widespread agreement and understanding that holistic approaches, including people from diverse areas of expertise are needed.
I’m JJ Buckle, and in this episode of the Mental Health Research Matters podcast, I speak to Philippa Hemmings, Head of Healthcare Technologies at the EPSRC about why the funding council wants to fund more mental health research, what it is that the engineering and physical sciences community can offer and how some of the initial hurdles to truly interdisciplinary work can be tackled.
Welcome to the podcast. Let’s meet our guest.
So I’m Philippa Hemmings. and I’ve been working with UKRI, previously EPSRC, gosh – for a long time now. But three years in my current role, which is Head of our Healthcare Technologies theme.
So I want to dive right in. Why does the EPSRC want to fund mental health research?
We’re interested in excellent research, but we’re interested, and so are our researchers as well as the government that funds us thinking about its ultimate impact. And that can be long-term, but that’s often what motivates people to start on their research career it’s what motivates me personally, to hope that we can help find those new ideas that eventually will make a real difference to people’s lives.
And mental health is very underrepresented in our current portfolio. Which is approaching from a health perspective, close on a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money, which is a lot. And about 1% of that, as far as we can tell, it’s not always easy to, pick out these, these nuggets is on mental health. But when we talk to people, when we look for the opportunities, when we look , for the problems where we’re crying out for new and different solutions, mental health is, approaching the top of the list, if not at the top of the list.
So there’s a mismatch between, what we think would be really impactful and what we see currently, that the engineering and physical sciences community is confident. And, you know, we’re currently working on.
Why is mental health research higher up in your priority list than some other things. Is that certain things which you think the EPS (engineering and physical sciences) community can really contribute, which is maybe not there right now?
I would say it’s close to the top of the priority list simply because it matters to so many people’s lives. But also because we know from a whole range of other examples, engineers and physical scientists. And by that, I mean, mathematicians, computer scientists, when they come together have got a great track record of working with others in the wider research community to come up with really great solutions.
So we think it’s sort of a perfect opportunity to bring some, existing thinking and some develop some innovative new thinking to a problem of huge importance within the UK and also thinking more broadly, of course.
I’m interested in, some kind of more specifics around what is it that, that the engineering and physical sciences community can contribute towards mental health research?
Well, I’d offer you a range of possibilities. I think using technology; sensors, devices, detectors in an integrated way to pick up, say maybe, the early warning signs of potential concerns about an individual or communities’ mental health. Thinking about more specific targeted detection thinking about potential new treatments.
And also, this has been a feature in other areas of healthcare, and I think the recent pandemic has really brought home the importance of it, thinking more about a richer more agile and responsive monitoring and self-care regime as well. So that the individual can be more in control and more informed about their mental health; by getting feedback on it, being able to interact differently with professionals in the healthcare system, and otherwise to understand what’s happening for them as well as also providing that the reporting to get the targeted help and more effective, hopefully, interventions that would really benefit them.
Often we’re in the area where we tried to combine, self-reported information on people’s, their emotions, their state of mood. But if you combine that with an appropriate set of, quantitative measurements, that’s the potential to be really. Particularly if it happens in people’s real lives rather than from the always-going-to-be- occasional interaction with the healthcare system.
[But also, you know, our interests and some examples of their research. I say, although it’s a small proportion of the total, it still represents upwards of 40 million pounds worth of grants.
But it’s also thinking of the supporting systems that help people in terms of living the day-to-day life they want to. Some people describe it as assisted technology, but it’s about promoting independence, promoting choice and those types of things. Engineering, physical sciences, I think has got a real role to contribute to that as well.
I mean, classicly, somebody with dementia, there’s research that people would already be aware of about how do we build suitable reminders for people who, who may, you know struggling to recall facts, figures previous routines.
And do you think the role of the EPS community has changed quite drastically when it comes to mental health research? As there’s kind of been this explosion in I guess, access to data and kind of technological development. Have you seen a real change in the last, five or 10 years as, data is much more accessible to everyone?
I think what we’re really interested in on what I’ve seen more of is how do you combine different types of data because that’s where you have the potential for step changes in your understanding and the types of solutions and progress we can make. For example, combining clinical data with brain imaging data with observational data, with more sociological data.
That’s where I see there’s a growing interest and a huge amount of potential, but of course, you know, engineers, and physical sciences can be dealing with lots of data that is at the heart of a lot of what our researchers would do.
Because often what an engineer, physical scientist will try and do is to manage with relatively little data. Because there is a cost and a time to getting that data. And then of course you have how generally applicable is the information as well. Which is why, I think that skill and capability that the engineering physical science would probably have that analytical and modeling capability looking for things that are more generalisable , informed by data , but also on developing models and hypotheses and theories that they can be tested out and validated.
I’m interested to talk about the kind of impact EPSRC as an institution and what it can do to encourage more interdisciplinary cooperation from perhaps from an early stage in a researcher’s career?
Well, in some areas of our portfolio, interdisciplinary working is very well established. A rough estimate would be, if we look across the EPSRC as a whole. It may represent 40, 45% of the total activity.
In the case of healthcare, I would say it’s pretty much the totality. If you’re working on health at a minimum, you need to be collaborating with a healthcare professional, who’s often a different discipline to your own.
I think the issue is getting the new mixes of disciplines that you almost certainly would need to really feel confident, as well as , getting those insights and making progress when you’re in a, perhaps a less familiar and a new field. For many of our researchers, I say, given that we’re looking to encourage and incentivise more of our research community to see what their ideas could contribute to sort of mental health issues and challenges.
Is there any advice you could give to a young researcher or researcher in general around building those connections and reaching out outside of the engineering and physical sciences discipline?
There’s some formal things that exist that I would encourage them to be aware of and consider joining. As UKRI, we’ve supported a number of networks across the UKRI family on various aspects of mental health, but in EPSRC, we also support research networks on a whole variety of other topics. So being involved in a network where you get to meet colleagues who want to work with people from different disciplines, who’ve got the time and the resources and will help share their experience provide a supportive environment to develop new ideas and to build that knowledge. But our research community I think is very keen to encourage and support the next generation.
So finding mentors, finding networks, taking the opportunity for those serendipitous conversations. As well as asking for resources from EPSRC and other funders to attend events and workshops outside your own area of expertise.
It sounds an awful lot and time of often at a premium, but I guess finding a problem or an area that you’re interested in and, I find, and people tell me the passion, to explore an area people become very ingenious about finding the most effective pathway for them and finding people along the way, who are their potential collaborators.
Alongside those relationships kind of interdisciplinary work and co-production costs both time expertise and resource. So which all of which in an ideal world, need to be invested to some level before even applying for funding call. How can we get around that blocker?
A lot of our universities have recognised that for some time. And, of course, almost more resource can be made available. But there are also more resources than certainly, they used to be to encourage those conversations, those, broader development activities that you need before you can start to articulate the research problem and just start to think, what resources do I need to tackle it? Who do I need to talk to? And all the things that, that make a great research proposal, but hopefully is successful and then launches your, you know, research career and a really good direction as well as leading to a great outcome.
But we always tell people, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking what you can’t apply for. But actually, EPSRC always says, tell us about your research, tell us what you think you need to make it successful. Identify the full range of costs as far as you can. And if we can support it we will, you know, do our best to provide all the resources you need. So be quite imaginative. We can always just say no. If, if there are restrictions about what is possible, given the rules and regulations that we all need to operate under, but we encourage people to be imaginative about the resources they need.
Do you think the EPS community’s role in mental health research is destined to grow in the future?
Yes. And also when it’s viewed in the context of real people’s real lives and what I mean by that is, is one of the activities where we’ve been talking to colleagues and the department for health and social care is their interest in how do we more effectively manage and support people with multiple long-term conditions and mental health is sadly often one of those long-term conditions, but frequently, doesn’t exist in isolation. People have also got health needs and health challenges alongside of that.
So how do we design care pathways? How do we make the system more efficient? How do we empower the individual to get the care and the support that they need rather than having to navigate the complexities of the existing healthcare system. So that’s at the early stage.
And also simply because I think it’s such an important topic and we as EPSRC, and I know from all the researchers I’ve talked to over many, many years are really motivated by tackling problems that are important problems that really make a difference.
Do you envisage interdisciplinary work, becoming more common in the future, particularly within this role? Do you think that the architecture of the funding system is set up to help it prosper?
The fact that we support a lot of interdisciplinary research would say that, the system manages to an extent. Could it always be better? Undoubtedly, yes. It’s a very competitive system and everybody wants to make the best decisions drawing on advice from experts.
And that’s both a strength and a weakness, particularly where you’re working at the cutting edge of, new problems where people have expertise in parts of the problem, but not the totality of that research topic. And that’s tricky for everybody. But I think all our peer reviewers and as EPSRC, we do best to support it.
You want to make sound decisions, but you want to take risks. And we want to work with a whole range of people that can contribute expertise.
So one of the things we’re always keen [to do] is to make sure that we haven’t got a narrow and limited set of experts that we work with. So in the same way that our researchers are forging new collaborations, as a research council, as EPSRC, we want to make sure that we’re also taking that broad range of advice and inputs where we need to in both thinking about, the topics we should be supporting. And also when it comes to making the decisions, how we allocate the resources we
In the run-up to this interview, I spoke to a few ECRs about concerns or queries, that they, or other ECRs might have when trying to engage in interdisciplinary work.
And I wanted to put those to you now. So number one is that funding calls themselves often focused on one aspect and not another, making it hard to approach them from an interdisciplinary perspective.
It’s true that there is a sort of an art and a science to coming up with a funding call. It needs to be specific enough that people feel that they know what the funder wants because they, improve that odds of getting funding.
But at the same time, it needs to be broad that we do really allow for a whole range of possibilities. Cause we’re putting calls out where we need something different. And sometimes we’re not quite sure what we want. So giving enough guidance, but not being overly prescriptive.
But of course, what I would say is that across EPSRC, and UKRI as a whole calls, only represents a part of the budget And it’s generally the smaller part of the budget. So we always tell somebody, don’t wait for the perfect call. It may come along. But if you’ve got an idea, there is always a way to apply for funding throughout the year.
Number two, is there are fears that interdisciplinary work will look too unfocused.
By that, I take it that sometimes people need to describe the processes of finding out of scoping of building those collaborations. And sometimes it’s even not appropriate to overly specify the research challenge or the research program, and certainly, with some of our larger grants and funders, that’s absolutely recognised.
But we do ask people, even if everything they’re going to do and how they’re going to do isn’t worked through, what we’re always interested in is, the ultimate goal, the vision, what motivates them. Something of the challenges and where the novelty would be. Because there’s a research council, but always interested in the novelty of the science. And some way in which they’re going to unpick what that research agenda looks like.
In many cases, the kind of the output or the reward of the research project, may be a paper being published in a certain journal. What about concerns around interdisciplinary work would just not being focused enough to fit into one of those journals, being featured in those journals may be, a stepping stone to a bigger, better thing?
Of course, I recognise that, the publications and recognise that academic journals. And then of course there are interdisciplinary journals as well is really, really important for academic progression and disseminating knowledge.
But particularly within the engineering, physical sciences community, we are aware there are a whole range of other potential outputs. Whether it’s conference proceedings, one of the things might be in terms of advice to policymakers or impact on regulations if you were talking about in a the civil engineering community.
So there are a range of other outputs we would, you know ask people to try and describe. And it’s not a popular thing, and you might want to edit this out, but of course, as a research casually EPSRC, you know, along with all the others, encourages all our researchers to record on a regular basis through ResearchFish, which is not a well-regarded system, but it really does try to build up that rich picture.
And of course, for us, we capture that information when the research has just been concluded. Maybe a year, maybe two years out, and those things might be academic publications. They might be articles of some other description. They might be webinars, podcasts. They might be a whole variety of other things.
ut interestingly, you know what we really see. We hope that a good fraction of our research will end up as products and tools, something that is outside academia. That’s what we’d like to see for a good proportion of our research.
Of course, that’s a fraught journey and it can be a long time between the research idea, the conclusion of the research project, we funded and that happening for all sorts of reasons.
So you’re saying that the EPSRC wouldn’t think less of a project if it wasn’t featured in one of these high-profile, highly regarded journals that there are other outputs, which you’d consider just as worthy.
I guess I would say, because most of our interactions are based on how people describe themselves on paper. Sometimes we make decisions based on face-to-face interviews, but for the majority, there has to be a case made.
And I would say it’s how do people sell themselves in terms of their achievements, their knowledge their independence, their standing amongst their peers , their strengths and qualities as a collaborator and papers can be part of that. But it’s how else do you evidence that to people that don’t know you in a way that is convincing for people who want to be able to support you.
And another Mental Health Research Matters podcast comes to a close. Thank you to Philippa for her time. And thank you to you for listening.
Make sure to keep an eye on the Mental Health Research Matters website for future episodes. And we hope to see you soon.