Social Network Study Tracking Growth of the TCRN

22 March 2016
TCRN Member Dr Janet Long

Building strategic relationships between members is the key to a successful translational research network, according to the third instalment of a study funded by the TCRN.

Called the Social Network Survey, this three-stage study led by TCRN member Dr Janet Long, tracked the growth of TCRN memberships, activities and linkages since the network’s inception in 2011. TCRN members were asked to respond to surveys in 2012, 2013 and 2015, providing insights into what they saw as the value and challenges of translational research network membership. The results of the third Social Network Collaboration Survey were recently published in Implementation Science

“The third survey shows that the network is functioning well, in that it’s bringing together people from lots of different backgrounds to work collaboratively together,” Dr Long said. 

Key to the research findings was the importance of a strategic approach to network growth, in which existing members identified researchers and clinicians with particular skill sets and invited them to join.

“When the network was first set up, it was a really wide spread of very senior and influential people in a range of research and clinical areas, and many of those people are very active in inviting people they think would be interested, and also that would be an asset, to join the network,” Dr Long said.

Over the course of the three surveys, member numbers grew from 68 to 244. This growth in membership was also reflected by an exponential growth in ‘ties’, or relationships, between network members.

In the first survey 26 of the 52 respondents reported 106 collaborative ties with other members. In the second survey, 94 of 113 respondents reported 326 ties, and all but two of the 173 respondents of the third survey reported 1658 ties between them, an exponential growth in collaboration. In turn, these ties provided fertile ground for the development of research collaborations across all levels of the translational cancer research spectrum. 

“When we’re talking about collaborative ties, we’re not just talking about people who won some funding for a formal project. We’re also talking about all these other people that they talk to in the corridor and who provided resources or links to other members with relevant knowledge and experience,” Dr Long said. 

“This is the richness of the survey, I think – it shows all this behind the scenes stuff. It’s all being driven by those relationships and that common vision of wanting to improve the care of people with cancer and get better outcomes.”

Survey respondents also identified a number of tools that, as products of the network, were significant in enabling changes to clinical and research practice. In particular, these included access to consumer representatives through the TCRN’s Consumer Advisory Committee, access to pain management education via the 2012 TCRN Cancer Challenge of the Year project, and access to the HSA Biobank’s samples and linked health data as a resource that supported a variety of translational cancer research projects.

“One of the things that came up very frequently was that the consumer engagement was really valuable, so getting a consumer perspective on things that they were trying to do had changed the design of some of their projects,” said Dr Long.

“There were some lovely quotes from strictly lab-based researchers who said having a consumer in the lab and being able to talk to them about what they were doing was putting a face on their research.”

Viewed together, these outcomes paint a clear picture of the TCRN’s capacity to break down professional silos. Its commitment to multidisciplinary research and to championing a culture of collaboration have resulted in remarkable outcomes in the way that researchers and clinicians now work together.

“We could see during the first survey that people were clustered around either working with a university or working in a hospital within their tumour group or particular department, so there were silos existing geographically and between different professions,” Dr Long said.

“Then, as the network developed and more and more people were linked up, that pattern disappeared. We can’t demonstrate now that there are clusters as there were before among members of the network, so that’s a really important finding.”