Go back

Taking good care


NIHR launches £10 million social care research scheme

The National Institute for Health and Care Research has launched its Research Programme for Social Care to fund work that generates evidence to improve, expand and strengthen the way social care is provided. There is no budget limit for individual projects and the deadline for applications is 17 January 2024. 

Martin Knapp, programme’s director, explains why it was set up, what it aims to achieve and what applicants should consider.

Why did NIHR set up this programme?

NIHR has always funded social care research. It just hasn’t given it a very high priority for various historical reasons—which is not a moan. NIHR’s School for Social Care Research was set up in 2009. That was the first time NIHR had a social care-specific part of its infrastructure. It was a tiny part, but identifiable.

Since then, there has been a growing realisation about how important adult social care is and how useful research could be. Having a dedicated programme is probably the best way to get the right questions addressed, and to support researchers and capacity-building.

What is the programme’s remit?

Historically, NIHR only funded adult social care research in England. There are two things that are changing with this programme. 

One is that it includes children’s social care, even though the policy responsibility for children’s social care is with the Department for Education rather than the Department of Health and Social Care. But the division at age 18 is slightly arbitrary, in some respects, for research projects. So the programme covers social care across any point in the lifespan.

Second, it’s the whole of the UK rather than just England. Our view is that being able to look at what is happening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and then compare that with England, will be good for everybody.

The programme is broad in admitting primary and secondary, qualitative and quantitative research—are there any preferences?

The preference is for excellent research. Over the last 10 years, most quantitative studies have brought in a qualitative component to help shape the trial. Although lots of qualitative studies remain purely qualitative, I think there is a recognition that a blending of qualitative and quantitative methods is often very insightful, even if the programme is not going to encourage people to do mixed methods over anything else.

The programme includes an early career researcher opportunity. Can you say more about this?

Let’s say you’re designing a big trial in the social care field, then in a way we’re asking: “Could you work into that a capacity-building opportunity for a PhD student or an early career researcher?” The goal is that somebody working on the project is then additionally supported for training, or there’s a PhD student embedded within the project.

We will also have a separate stream for people who are perhaps new to leading a research project, for them to be able to bid for smaller amounts of funding. 

Those bids must be high quality to pass, but there will be a recognition that they are relatively new to leading research.

There is no limit on the funding amount you can apply for?

That is correct, but value for money is always a criterion. That said, social care research has been much more risk-averse and more cautious than, for example, clinical research. 

This isn’t because researchers are not ambitious, but there hasn’t been this tradition of big studies in social care. We would like to change that and see some big and ambitious studies. 

We don’t want to discourage small proposals, however. They can often be brilliant in their own right. 

How important is social care user involvement?

It’s fundamental. If you put in a bid without it or with only tokenistic involvement, you won’t get funding. Quite often people have a great deal of patient or user interaction and involvement in preparing the research application. That is strongly encouraged. But as the project runs, we also need to see genuine and appropriate involvement of people with relevant experiences.

Topic-wise, do you have suggestions?

Projects need to be relevant to social care practice and/or have implications for policy. 

I would like research projects to be tackling the cutting-edge questions in social care today, the changes and the innovations—although not limited to that. Many activities in social care are not particularly new or shiny or seemingly exciting, but still require research to understand them. 

Care homes for older people, for example. Much support of elderly care-home residents is not evidence-based. I’m not saying that everything has to be evidence-based, but lots of things happen in the social care sector and we don’t understand how effective they are, or whether they can be made more effective. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com