Meet the Editor: Sandy Oliver

In this instalment of the CIDG 'Meet the Editor' series, we talk with Professor Sandy Oliver, who became a CIDG Editor in August 2020. Sandy is Professor of Public Policy at UCL Institute of Education and a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of Johannesburg.

Could you descibe where you currently work and what you do there?

I work at University College London’s EPPI-Centre or, more formally, the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre. I also belong to the Africa Centre for Evidence at the University of Johannesburg. My work with both institutions focuses on how to synthesise findings from new and emerging research literatures, and how to combine formal knowledge from research and tacit knowledge from experience to make decisions.

What is a typical day for you?

The technical work: puzzling over research methods. The people work: investing in the next generation – working with students and early career researchers, or mentoring mid-career managers. And the advocacy work: editing Research for All, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal focusing on research that involves universities and communities, services or industries working together.

What prompted you to work in this area?

As a young mother, I had a vested interest in how obstetricians and midwives cared for childbearing women. I began to volunteer with the National Childbirth Trust, supporting other childbearing women, just at the time that systematic reviews were becoming a thing in maternity care. Consequently, I became active in debates about how randomised controlled trials and systematic reviews could be designed to be more relevant to the people using health care services. Many years later, by then systematic reviewer myself, I became active in similar debates about how to make systematic reviews more relevant to policy decisions in sectors other than health, and particularly in low and middle income countries.

What are the major challenges that still remain in your field?

A major question when systematically reviewing social science is how far can evidence needs and evidence products be considered widely relevant, and when is it important to tailor evidence to particular circumstances. This is a question of values as well as methodology.

How did you first hear about Cochrane?

I heard about Cochrane in the early 1990s when it was first emerging from the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU) in Oxford, UK, which was leading the way with systematic reviews about maternity care. I was a volunteer with the National Childbirth Trust, supporting expectant and new parents. We were pioneers for using evidence to inform decisions about health care – especially evidence from the NPEU.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being involved with Cochrane?

The fun and friendship that comes with tackling important problems on an international scale.

Who (or what) has been the biggest influence on your career to date?

People who have changed how we think about what we know. In particular: Sir Iain Chalmers who challenged clinical experts by championing systematic reviews for making clinical decisions; Professor Ruairidh Milne who introduced patient and public involvement into Health Technology Assessment; and Professor Ann Oakley who led the way in weaving together randomised controlled trials and qualitative research.

Please list three words you would associate with Cochrane?

Respected, productive, rigorous.

What do you do in your spare time?

Cross-country walking routes such as the Pilgrim’s Way in England, and currently missing the Camino Santiago in Spain.    

The CIDG editorial base is located at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool, UK. The CIDG is led by Professor Paul Garner (Co-ordinating Editor) and Deirdre Walshe (Managing Editor). Over 600 authors from some 52 countries contribute to the preparation of the Cochrane Reviews. They are supported by an international team of Editors, each with topic or methodological expertise. 

The CIDG’s main areas of work are on determination of the effects of interventions on the prevention or treatment infectious diseases of relevance to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and neglected tropical diseases. The aims of the CIDG are to impact on policy and research in tropical diseases through the production of high quality and relevant systematic reviews, and to lead developments in review quality improvement and effective dissemination of findings.