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Feature

Cynthia McGill.

Flexibility is required, says Cynthia McGill, community-based research liaison to the U's Institutional Review Board. McGill is a staff member for the Research Subjects' Protection Programs.

The research give-and-take

Rising to the challenge of community-based research

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, Sept. 19, 2007

Community-based research has become a growing priority over the past decade. The Kellogg Foundation has described it as beginning with a research topic of importance to a community and aiming to combine knowledge with action to achieve social change. It's a collaborative approach that equitably involves all partners in the research process and recognizes the unique strengths each partner brings.*

But the reciprocal nature of community-based research is its crucial challenge, says J. Michael Oakes, associate professor of epidemiology and a member of the University's Institutional Review Board.

"Community-based research challenges the conventional notion that there are researchers and research subjects, and that the two groups cannot be the same," says Oakes. "In community-based research, the two are often the same--researchers may become community participants, and community participants often become researchers. The line between researchers and subjects is thus blurred, and this is the primary and unique challenge of CBR."

Last February, a meeting to identify ways that University systems can facilitate community-based research was hosted by the U's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, Office for Public Engagement, and the College of Education and Human Development dean's office. The meeting led to discussion with the U's Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Sponsored Projects Administration (SPA), identifying IRB and SPA perceptions about institutional barriers to this type of public engagement and steps needed to alleviate them.

"In community-based research, researchers may become community participants and community participants often become researchers. The line between researchers and subjects is blurred."

Cynthia McGill has been working in the U Research Subjects' Protection Programs for eight years. She supervises social science research and communicates with principal investigators and community members in the analysis and review of incoming applications. She has also become the community-based research liaison to the U's Institutional Review Board. McGill recognizes the importance of community-based research to the University and hopes to help foster its growth.

"I think it is vital that all IRBs encourage this dynamic interaction between universities and communities," says McGill. "As the CBR liaison, I have tried to become more educated about community-based research by listening to researchers and community members, attending seminars on the topic, and ensuring that the IRB committees are familiar with this kind of research."

Education of University and community members alike is an important part of solving problems faced when engaging in community-based research.

Pamela Webb
Pamela Webb, new associate vice president for research administration, sees an important role for Sponsored Projects Administration (SPA) in community-based research.

For example, many funding agencies' regulations and requirements "may seem a bit arcane or unnecessary to the community-based organizations," says Pamela Webb, new associate vice president for research administration. She sees SPA in a critical role to provide an education component for the community on those issues.

Webb also sees SPA in a role that facilitates collaboration by writing agreements that effectively articulate the needs and wishes of both the community and University partners.

"Effective and sustainable partnerships are aided by clarity in expectations, especially by understanding how the parties intend to work together so that both may achieve their desired objectives," Webb says. "This can be of particular importance in community-based projects when the partners may be less accustomed to working with one another, or when the nature of their initiatives vary tremendously."

Innovation and flexibility required

To meet the challenges of community-based research, innovation is required. The IRB recently began tailoring its applications to ask questions more pertinent to community-based research, inquiring about a project's community partners and their ideas. Meanwhile, SPA is investigating the effectiveness of simplified contract arrangements as a way of facilitating more straightforward communication with the community and local industry.

McGill stresses the importance of flexibility and an open mind as key to encouraging community-based research at the University of Minnesota.

"There are often many, many changes--which is a reflection of the huge collaboration going on with the community," says McGill. "With CBR, you have to be a little more flexible. The regulations still must be upheld, but there is always room within those regulations for community interpretation, for an institution to make some decisions to adapt to neighborhoods and communities."

"The University has a commitment to the population of Minnesota...not to impose things on the community but rather to work with them to study those issues that are most important to them, and in a way that is respectful."

Michael Miner, associate professor of family medicine and chair of the IRB's social science panel, emphasizes the importance of viewing community-based research as a give-and-take relationship, and the IRB's commitment to facilitating those relationships.

"The University has a commitment to the population of Minnesota," says Miner. "Part of this commitment is not to impose things on the community but rather to work with them to study those issues that are most important to them, and in a way that is respectful. As an IRB, we try to be supportive of such collaborations."

McGill hopes recent efforts will alleviate many of the barriers to community-based research.

"We want to make this kind of research as straightforward and easy as possible, not act as a stumbling block," says McGill. "We want to make sure that we communicate to the principal investigators and the University community that we are willing to work with them and help them along through the process."


Stephanie Wilkes is a senior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail wilk0268@umn.edu.

* W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Health Scholars Program, quoted by Community-Campus Partnerships for Health.