Advancing Military Research Through International Collaboration

  • Research

Military researchers from USC and King’s College London came together at a recent symposium with the goal of advancing innovation in the field.

While they vary in size and scope, the armed forces of the United States and the United Kingdom share a number of structural and operational principles. One of those is ensuring  service members’ effective transition out of the military—a central focus of military social work.

The USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families (CIR) and the King’s Centre for Military Health Research (KCMHR) at King's College London have alternately hosted a joint symposium on military social work research since 2016. With the mission of progressing military social work research and practice through the effective collaboration of researchers and stakeholders in the United States and the United Kingdom, the fourth annual symposium was held in Los Angeles from May 15 to 16.

Attendees of this year’s symposium included approximately 25 faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, doctoral students and staff from both USC and King’s College. A select number of USC Master of Social Work students with an interest in military social work research were also invited to attend.

Key objectives of the symposium

“One of the primary objectives of this year’s symposium was to present research that is being conducted at both CIR and KCMHR, with a special focus on projects being led by doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows,” said Jessica Dodge, a second-year dual degree MSW/PhD candidate at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, who planned this year’s event.

More broadly, the annual event attempts to identify new opportunities for collaborative research from members of both institutions. “International collaboration promotes innovation—and in a field like military social work, effective partnerships have the potential to challenge or augment existing theoretical frameworks as well as improve clinical practice,” Dodge said.

Memorable program highlights

Carl Castro and King’s College Professor of epidemiology Nicola Fear. Both spoke about current research undertakings at their centers before kicking off the two-day event.

A highlight of the event was a series of 12 research project presentations given by current PhD students and postdoctoral fellows from both schools. These projects were presented in three-minute increments and designed for students to share the central focus of their current work or previous outcomes of past work and receive valuable feedback from established academics.

USC PhD candidate Capt. Stephen Morgano presented on his qualitative research proposal into the unique implications of clinical disclosure agreements within active duty military settings. In clinical settings where clients are civilians, practitioners and clients generally agree upon a nondisclosure contract, which includes a stipulation that any information that may indicate a physical threat to clients or others may be disclosed to the appropriate government agency. Morgano explored the unique elements of disclosure within an active duty clinical setting—in which nondisclosure agreements also do not protect information that is deemed a potential impediment to the military mission with which the service member is involved.

USC PhD candidate Taylor Harris gave a presentation on her research, which relies on mixed quantitative and qualitative methods as well as action research to better understand mental health and substance use among homeless veterans. In particular, Harris explored some of the ways in which housing and supportive services impact the mental health and substance use outcomes for veterans and other populations with high historical rates of homelessness.

Dodge also cited the presentation of Daniel Leightley, PhD, a KCMHR postdoctoral research associate, as particularly engaging. Leightley’s current research uses artificial intelligence to screen out service members who could be at risk for PTSD. His research initiatives include HeadSmart, a mobile application used to evaluate the interface between service members’ physical and mental health during their transition back into civilian life, as well as a project called CRIS, which seeks to create a natural language processing tool able to detect veterans from free-text clinical notes. Free-text clinical notes are unstructured text in electronic health records, which are used to record patients’ health and may be freely shared among health care providers.

Afterward, presenters each received direct feedback from CIR and KCMHR faculty researchers—a valuable opportunity to gain novel perspectives regarding the central questions and methodologies of their work.

Finally, participants were organized into three focused research clusters. One centered on the subject of military families with a subfocus on the military-to-civilian transition. Another cluster focused on addressing the mental health needs of both active service members and veterans,  with a subfocus on technology-based interventions. The third cluster focused on issues unique to LGBTQ military service members and veterans. In these sessions, attendees were able to share insights aligned with their research backgrounds, as well as brainstorm new approaches to these unique issues within the larger context of military social work.

Reaping the mutual benefits of international collaboration

“My hope is that this year’s symposium will lead to an international research proposal,” Dodge said. “There is an increased focus across the board on military families, so it may be particularly useful to conduct a comparative study on military family transitions using data from both the U.S. and the U.K.”

While it remains difficult to secure international grants for global research—since federal governments often prefer to fund research within their own countries—Dodge is hopeful that the ongoing partnership between CIR and KCMHR could lead stakeholders and policymakers in both the U.S. and the U.K. to recognize the value of collaborative military research.

A long-term goal of the partnership is to develop a joint military research PhD program in which students could study at both the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the King’s College Academic Department of Military Mental Health (ADMMH). Such a program would offer the unique opportunity for students to gain the dual perspectives of British and American military experts and contribute to research on the forefront of military social work and psychology.

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