A conversation with the new Canada Research Chair in Social Inclusion and Health Equity
Canada Research Chairs (CRC) are some of the world’s brightest scholars and scientists who contribute to new discoveries and help us make sense of the world we live in. Chairholders aim to achieve research excellence in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities, and social sciences.
When the Government of Canada announced the new Chairholders this week, we were thrilled that BCCSU Research Scientist Dr. Lindsey Richardson was among those named, awarded a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Social Inclusion and Health Equity. Dr. Richardson is also an Associate Professor of the Sociology Department at the University of British Columbia and has been leading research to address the causes and health consequences of socio-economic (in)security, with a specific focus on people who use drugs.
We asked Dr. Richardson about her research and what this new Chair means for her work.
Q: Congratulations on being awarded a Canada Research Chair in Social Inclusion and Health Equity. Can you share what kind of research this award will support?
Thank you, it is an honour be part of a group that includes so many innovative scholars that I admire so much. The main focus of my CRC research will be projects that in some way address the contributions of poverty and the socioeconomic marginalization to problematic drug use, drug-related harms, and health inequity. It will include work that seeks to identify the ways in which our institutions and social structures socially, economically, and legally exclude people who use drugs. It will draw on this work to develop and evaluate innovative ways that we might better promote social inclusion and health equity. And lastly, my CRC research will critically evaluate how social inclusion, or a lack thereof, can affect the production of knowledge. That is, whether or not we do a good enough job of considering the impacts that social exclusion might have on research among people who use drugs and the conclusions we draw from it.
Q: Strategies to improve the wellbeing of socioeconomically marginalized people who use drugs has largely been under-researched. Why do you think that is?
Good question. I think it under-researched not because people don’t think it matters, but because the idea of addressing the impacts of poverty or socioeconomic marginalization feels really big and it is hard to know where to start. We’re talking about trying to intervene to disrupt huge social forces like stigma or inequity or institutional control. In these areas, researchers are often really good at describing a problem, but it is much harder is to develop, implement, and evaluate a way to disrupt that problem. It is more demanding scientifically and as a result moves much slower that we would like it to.
Over the last couple of years, my team has worked on reviewing the existing research that links socioeconomic marginalization with drug-related harm, particularly overdose. And we’ve noticed that things like poverty or low-income are often “add ons” in analyses rather than the primary focus of a study, especially in quantitative research.
We have a long way to go in even just understanding the specifics of the problem.
Q: Where do you see opportunities for your research to improve the wellbeing for people who use drugs?
There are three key aspects of all of this research I’m prioritizing: that it be community informed, that it be paired with strategic knowledge exchange, and that it be actionable from a policy and programmatic perspective. This research needs to be guided by community priorities and we need to be able to do something about the conclusions.
It is no secret that people with lived and living experience are best equipped to understand the dynamics of a problem and prioritize potential solutions. I view my research as trying to contribute to the community by leveraging scientific evidence to support community priorities.
Q: What does this type of research look like in practice?
An example would be the Assessing Economic Transitions Study (ASSETS) currently underway. We’re working with economic opportunity providers, who are doing incredibly innovative work to support economic engagement, to determine which research questions can best support them. We’re also looking to provide them with data and data analysis support so they can get a better understanding of their contributions; this can support their own operations as well as the scaling up of their work, including to other contexts.
I see this work as bridging what is happening in community with policy makers. Producing research that can be very specific about potentially impactful policy and programmatic changes, and in making sure that this research is translated on an ongoing basis to policy makers, I think there is a real role for this work in helping reduce drug-related harm linked to poverty and socioeconomic marginalization.
Policy change is an opaque, often complex challenge and there is, in my view, and important role for research in ensuring policy makers consider scientific evidence in their decision making.
Q: Overdose and drug poisoning has become a national emergency, yet the response from government has largely failed to meet the urgency required. How do you think your research can help inform needed policy changes?
It is unconscionable that we are this far into this severe a public health emergency without more action having been taken. I’m a firm believer of a “bricks in walls” approach: that there is no single silver bullet that will effectively end this crisis and we therefore need to be moving forward on multiple fronts.
The decriminalization of people who use drugs is important but will do nothing to address the poisonous drug supply. And a safe supply of drugs is critically important but unlikely to fully address the inequitable experience of overdose unless underlying conditions and social forces that amplify drug poisoning risk for marginalized people are addressed. My work seeks to bring in strategies and ideas that are outside of traditional harm reduction or treatment approaches that focus on the act of taking drugs.
I’m advocating for an approach that sees multiple kinds of policy (social, economic, labour, etc.) as drug policy to act on upstream determinants of health and bring a broader approach to the overdose and drug poisoning crisis.
Q: Can you share a bit about how you became interested in this area of research?
Before I became a researcher I worked in public policy both for the Federal Government and Vancouver’s municipal government. Drug policy and social policy were a part of my work at both places. It became painfully clear to me in those roles that our approach to substance use and people who use drugs was an area of public policy and public interest that we were getting really, really wrong.
When I returned to graduate school, my supervisor, Jonathan Gershuny, was an expert in the sociology of economic life. My research became a combination of my background, his expertise, and what I felt was an area of substance use research that warranted significantly more attention.
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