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Who was Averil Osborn?

Averil Osborn was known to students, to scholars, to professionals, to practitioners and to representational and advocacy groups across the spectrum of social gerontology as a life-long advocate for older people.

Averil contributed to the enhancement of older people's lives through her research and scholarly writings, through popular publications, and through active engagement with older people themselves. Her sudden death in 1994 saddened colleagues and friends in the British Society of Gerontology and she is remembered with deep affection and admiration.

To commemorate Averil's life and work the Society has established the BSG Averil Osborn Award for Participatory Research to support innovative research and dissemination projects which directly involve older people and to spread understanding and good practice.

"Averil was a true pioneer of what we now call the co-production of research. She believed passionately in participatory approaches in which older people needed to have an equal voice to academic researchers, policy makers and practitioners in the shaping of research questions and in the dissemination of research results. She outlined these views through a series of publications in the late 1980s and early 1990s and through her numerous talks at both practitioner and academic conferences. Averil also had the courage to argue her position through BSG at a time when there was little if any tradition of such participatory perspectives within British social gerontology."

Professor Robin Means - University of the West of England

Averil was born in 1944 and trained as a scientist before turning to public policy issues. She had a sharp, analytical mind with a scientist's healthy scepticism for received wisdom, and was always ready to question existing ideas and ways of doing things to promote improvements in society. The work that was to develop Averil's reputation as a social gerontologist began in 1975 when Averil became a research officer in the Lothian Region Social Work Department. She is described by colleagues as 'a superb professional who always set herself exactingly high standards'. She is also remembered for her warmth and gentle humour. In 1982, Averil moved to Age Concern Scotland as Assistant Director for Training and Development. Here she was able to address and bridge what she regarded as disturbing gaps between research and policy and practice. In the 1990s she joined the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which provided a further avenue for her commitment to change. Averil collaborated with many people in the public services, academic world and voluntary sector, many of whom researched especially challenging issues in social policy. She remained throughout deeply committed to action research. For her, the energy and money invested in social research were only well spent if its results were widely disseminated, informed public debate and catalysed policy change.

All Averil’s work was founded on a genuine respect and admiration for the older people with whom she came into contact. For Averil, older people were not just passive subjects, whether of care services, planning or research, but active participants eminently able and willing to determine their own destinies. She was one of the first gerontologists to champion an active role for older people in all stages of the research process, from determining the research questions, through research design, data collection, analysis and dissemination. She understood that this is ultimately a question of power: who decides what matters; who sets the agenda; who asks the questions; and who decides what things mean.

Averil embraced the highest standards of professional integrity and performance and expected them from those she worked with.  Averil saw participation as a fundamental right. It is for this reason that the BSG Averil Osborn Award for Participatory Research places such a strong emphasis on the direct involvement of older people in the research it funds.