Motivations and justifications

Harvard

I am in Boston, well Cambridge to be precise, which is just across the Charles River from Boston, and home to Harvard University. I arrived here on 6 April as a Visiting Scholar. When I asked the Wellcome Trust if I could spend three months here (as part of my five year Senior Investigator Award) I half expected them to say no. But they didn’t, and in fact have been enthusiastic about building US collaborations for my research. More of that later.

Justifying the trip to my family and to my colleagues and students at Liverpool, was equally vital – and this blog is partly for them by way of a longer explanation of what happens on historians’ research trips. I usually keep a paper research diary when I am away from Liverpool – this is the first time I have attempted an electronic – and public – record of what I do on my travels.

‘What do you actually do?’ This question, with varying degrees of implicit scepticism about historical research, comes up regularly from non-historian colleagues, and especially from my undergraduate medical students. I often introduce myself as an ‘applied health policy historian’. What I mean by that is I research the historical context to contemporary health issues, and then use my findings to engage with policymakers – often in local and national government organisations. I have also ‘applied’ my research, especially on Liverpool’s public health history, to public engagement – collaborating with museums, hospitals and community groups to develop exhibitions and projects that capture and explain histories of health and health care.

My new project – the reason for spending three months ‘in Cambridge’ (as they prefer to say here – not ‘at Harvard’ – but I quickly found that confuses my colleagues, especially when fixing times for skype calls) – is called ‘The Governance of Health. Medical, economic and managerial expertise in Britain since 1948’. It investigates how the NHS has increasingly turned to health economists and commercial consulting firms such as McKinseys to try to make healthcare more efficient and cost effective. Many of the NHS policies have been drawn indirectly from US ideas. I want to explore how and why that has happened.

To answer these initial questions, I have to understand the development of the US health system, health economics, and ‘health decision science’. Harvard is an excellent location to do this: there are 70 libraries, and many of the key individuals who have shaped US healthcare are on campus (and, I have discovered, very willing to devote an hour to briefing me).

So, what am I ‘actually doing?’ here? A lot of reading: books, collections of personal papers held in archives (Harvard, Yale, New York, Washington DC, etc); interviews; having interesting conversations with academics and health activists on what they think of the US and UK healthcare systems.

As I have the time, I hope to write more posts – maybe some observations on US city living (enormous fridges…), the highs and lows of archive research (staying focused vs new lines of enquiry, the challenge of huge amounts of information), and what keeps travelling academic researchers motivated (often it’s food…)

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