The Power of Knowledge
Mel Gray's research into evidence-based practice in the human services is concerned with getting new findings in the field to where they are needed most.
Mel Gray was a late starter to academia, postponing her career until her children were older, but the industrious Human Services researcher and educator has been busy making up for lost time since.
"I love scholarship, I love studying and I love research," says the internationally renowned Professor of Social Work, who completed her PhD in 1994, received her first professorial appointment five years later and has served as Head of School at two universities in between amassing a prolific catalogue of books, journal articles and conference papers.
Gray wrote almost half of the articles that contributed to the University of Newcastle receiving an Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) ranking of four in Social Work in 2011*, the highest score achieved nationally, and never ceases to amaze colleagues with her rate of publications in top-level journals.
At the time of this interview, Gray is in the midst of editing five books, writing chapters for four others, composing several journal articles and a conference presentation and working on four major research projects. On top of that workload, she is an enthusiastic amateur photographer who thinks nothing of rising before dawn to capture a brilliant sunrise.
Gray, a graduate of the University of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) in South Africa, was appointed to the University of Newcastle in 1999. After a five-year stint as Head of School, she took sabbatical in 2006 and dived headlong into research, which she describes as her academic passion.
"Research and writing are the things I really en joy," she says. "I feel privileged to be able to do this work, so having been given the opportunity, I am determined to make the most of it."
Gray has a leading role in two Social Work research projects with combined Australian Research Council funding of $380,000 looking into how knowledge in the field is produced and how effectively the latest research is implemented in practice. She is undertaking the work with Professor Stephen Webb and Associate Professor Debbie Plath, colleagues from the Faculty of Education and Arts' Research Institute for Social Inclusion and Wellbeing (RISIW).
The trio have written extensively on evidence-based practice, a mode of practice pioneered in the field of medicine that involves practitioners considering the best available research - as well as their expertise - in the course of clinical decision-making. It has provoked something of an 'art versus science' debate in the social work profession, with detractors arguing that it is too regulated for the human services.
"We wanted our research to address the question of whether there was resistance to it in the profession and look at the extent to which social workers were reading research and using it in practice," Gray explains.
The research team conducted the largest survey of social workers ever undertaken on the subject in Australia in order to establish reliable baseline information on the factors that influence the use of research evidence by human service professionals. The information will be used in tandem with the findings from Gray's related ARC-funded study, which is investigating where knowledge in the field is produced and how successfully researchers in universities collaborate with experts in the field.
"What underpins both projects is the issue of how we get research to the users," Gray says. "What our work is telling us is that to do that effectively we have to create a culture, an occupational environment, that values research and provides individual practitioners with the support and time to integrate that research into practice."
Gray expects the studies to lead to follow-up research on how to better engage practitioners in the knowledge production process and ensure that the latest research is being widely read and applied by those in the profession.
* Under the 2012 Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) assessment the University of Newcastle was the only university to achieve a '5' rating, 'well above world standard' for social work.