‘Our research is used to prioritise policy for children’s health and wellbeing’

9 Aug 2022

Image: Prof Saoirse Nic Gabhainn

NUI Galway’s Prof Saoirse Nic Gabhainn tells us about the impact of her research into young people’s health and the importance of including children themselves in this process.

Prof Saoirse Nic Gabhainn is professor of health promotion at NUI Galway and project leader in the university’s Health Promotion Research Centre.

She studied psychology in the 1980s at what was then University College Galway, before heading to England in search of postgraduate opportunities. She secured a demonstratorship in psychology at the University of Nottingham and undertook a part-time PhD there with Prof Tom Cox. Her research examined the interactions between informal and formal help over time among patients in treatment for alcoholism and members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

She returned to Galway in 1993 to take up a research fellow position in the newly formed Department of Health Promotion and worked with Prof Cecily Kelleher on various research projects focusing on children and school settings for health promotion. In 2001, she took up a junior lectureship in health promotion and started building her own research group from there.

‘Many people think they know what is best for children, and don’t think to ask children themselves’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

We work on child and adolescent health and wellbeing – which is a broad area and presents all sorts of fascinating theoretical and practical challenges. Our team is multidisciplinary and multicultural, so we learn from each other every day.

In Ireland, we run the cyclical Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study, which is a World Health Organization collaborative study involving 55 countries. Since 1998, we have collected nationally representative, and internationally comparative, data on children every four years.

Our specific interests have changed over time. In the early days I was very interested in substance use, but that has evolved as new team members joined us. We are particularly interested in health inequalities and topic areas like food insecurity, sexual health and experiences of discrimination, but also the settings of children’s lives, like peer relationships, schools and the local communities where children live.

Over the last 15 years we have developed a lot of expertise in child participation in the research process, and more recently in child-developed policy responses to our research findings.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Our overall team goal is to improve the lives of children in Ireland and internationally, and we take that very seriously. It requires us to conduct high-quality research, be both creative and meticulous, and to collaborate with stakeholders to ensure the evidence we generate is used by decision-makers.

Our research is used to prioritise policy and practice for children’s health and wellbeing by Government departments, the HSE and NGOs, but also to monitor changes over time. We also contribute to cross-national policy and strategy through collaborations with various UN bodies, the EU and the OECD.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a child, I played on the University College Galway campus, swam in the river there and our youth club was even located in one of the old terrapin buildings. My first job was helping out in a laboratory, and I was ridiculously proud of that white coat.

However, it was when I was an undergraduate and we were encouraged to take part in research as participants that the possibility of becoming a real researcher really dawned on me. I vividly remember sitting in the old Social Science Research Centre prefab with Claire Fitzgerald, who was a master’s student at the time. It was the first time I had ever met a young woman doing research and it was fascinating to me.

I remember having a list of questions about research methodology at the end of every lecture – I wanted to understand why research was conducted in certain ways and what the rationale was for the methodological decisions made. I always questioned what the findings would have been if a different choice had been made by the researchers.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

As everyone has been a child, people tend to think they understand childhood. Many people think they know what is best for children, and don’t think to ask children themselves.

There are lots of assumptions made about children, for example that they don’t know or understand themselves. However, any interaction with a child can result in questioning everything you thought you knew.

It’s understandable that people tend towards simple explanations, but life is both complicated and complex. The settings where we live, learn and love have very important impacts on us, and that can be difficult to conceptualise and measure.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years? How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

I find the public more critical and questioning of research findings, and that is a good thing. Citizens have just as much right to have informed views on science as they do on culture or the economy.

Our team runs a knowledge translation helpdesk where we proactively develop outputs for the public and professional groups. We work collaboratively with media outlets to disseminate this work and regularly provide evidence to civil society groups.

Social media has been a great channel for us to communicate with stakeholders and different target groups – this work is driven by our commitment to make a real difference for children and to contribute to improving their lives and their futures.

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