Building Research Capacity in Social Care

To achieve a growth in practice focused research, social care requires a solid infrastructure including a skilled research workforce, funding and a framework of national, strategic priorities (Marsh and Fisher, 2005).

The importance of more practice-based evidence

An effective health service is reliant on an effective social care system, and it is therefore vital that we develop a robust research base for social care, to ensure that local authorities (LAs) and third sector organisations provide the most effective services within a wider integrated system of health and social care.

A solid infrastructure for RCD

Building health service research capacity in the UK is viewed as a core function planned through research and development, which support an organisational approach to building research capacity development (RCD) (Whitworth et al. 2012). RCD requires the support and development of sustainable abilities and skills to enable individuals and organisations to perform high quality research. This suggests that a culture of research can be fostered by a strong internal organisational infrastructure, which supports individual career planning and skills development (Gee and Cooke, 2018).

The challenge

There is currently a lack of a systematic approach to RCD across social care and a lack of research to illuminate best practice. Social care needs to develop its own system and research infrastructure to develop understanding of what works and why with improved pathways to impact, demonstrating the value added of good social care (Geoghegan and Fenge, 2022).

Helping to address the challenge

The need for a more integrated approach has been recognised by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), which has already supported the inclusion of social care with new roles and targeted funding streams. Currently a number of NIHR funded projects are in progress to explore the challenge of building research capacity in social care.

These include a regional research network for RCD, embedded researchers, research practice partnerships, research in practice teams and the development of communities of practice.

Our Role

The NCPQSW has been contributing to this area of national research by helping to generate deeper insights into the challenges of building capacity to undertake social care research across the sector and the opportunities for building research engagement and capacity across Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) and the social care sector in the Wessex region (Dorset, South Wiltshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight).

In 2022, Professor Lee-Ann Fenge and Dr Andy Pulman completed a year-long study examining social care research enablers – which could help to build a positive research environment – and barriers – which might prevent or limit a positive research environment for practitioners.

They are currently working on a follow up project – one of four in the Wessex region being funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) – building on this initial scoping work and are currently in discussion with two LAs in Wessex to work on a collaboratively agreed project.

Developing a better understanding of the challenges of building capacity to undertake social care research in the Wessex region

In 2022, Bournemouth University was commissioned to undertake a study, funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) to develop a better understanding of the challenges of building capacity to undertake social care research in the Wessex region (Dorset, South Wiltshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight) and the opportunities for building research engagement and capacity.

Two groups of participants were recruited. The first group (n=22) were practitioners working in social care within the Wessex region. The second group (n=9) were Higher Education Institute (HEI) staff – academics and researchers – working within the Wessex region.

Data was collected between February and September 2022. Two reports were produced from this study. The first focused on the enablers and barriers facing practitioners in Wessex from the perspective of current practitioners and HEI staff who regularly interacted with, or had previously worked within the sector.

Our research noted that there were several areas where resources could be focused on helping to improve the current picture.

  • Contact – In an incredibly busy and stressful environment practitioners might not be in receipt of information or opportunities which are sent through traditional internal email systems or reside on static websites. These messages do not always get through to reach them.
  • Encouragement – LAs and senior management need to be encouraged to view research as an essential integral part of the social care sector. This includes supporting pathways for career development, allowing time for research and promoting embedding research into practice.
  • Support (Applications) – Practitioners interested in Fellowship/LA SPARC applications would benefit from more support before and during the process.
  • Support (General) – Research positive practitioners exist at all levels in LAs and would benefit from more support and opportunities to learn about or engage with research.
  • Improvements to practitioner research training – Practitioners who had not been sufficiently educated about research might not have an appreciation of its value to their practice and lack knowledge, skills and confidence to conduct research in practice.

Further viewing:

Pulman, A. 2023. NIHR ARC Wessex Social Care Lunchtime Seminar #2 – Building Research Capacity in Social Care.

Further reading:

Pulman, A. and Fenge, L.-A., 2023. Building Capacity for Social Care Research—Individual-Level and Organisational Barriers Facing Practitioners. The British Journal of Social Work.

Pulman, A. and Fenge, L.-A., 2023. Building Capacity for Social Care Research – Ways of Improving Research Skills for Social Workers. Social Work Education.

Social Care Capacity Building Awards (Bournemouth Project)

Building on the initial Wessex scoping work for practitioners that Professor Lee-Ann Fenge and Dr Andy Pulman undertook in 2022, the NCPQSW team are currently in discussion with two councils in Wessex to work on a collaboratively agreed project over 15 months. Initial discussions have highlighted that building research capacity is a priority for LAs and there is certainly interest, despite huge constraints in terms of releasing staffing.

The project – one of four in the Wessex region being funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) – runs between November 2022 and April 2024.

As of November 2022, several strands of activity have been identified within this project:

  1. Social care project with LA(s) – Adult Social Care Recruitment and Retention research project
  2. Learning opportunity delivery
  3. Collaborative research learning programme – Social Care Lunchtime Seminars 
  4. Establish action learning group
  5. Research champion funding support

As the project develops, you will be able to find out more about each of the strands and how they are progressing, so make sure to check back here regularly for updates.

What is research?

Research is all around us. As research participants, we know what it is like to be on the receiving end of a questionnaire or a survey. We live in a knowledge society, where information is easily collected, stored and analysed using computers and technology.

We take much of this for granted.

We rarely question rights to keep information about us and we assume that this information is essential for providing the services we receive and is used in beneficial and positive ways.

However, in professional roles, we need to understand how information is used and turned into evidence to inform practice. We also need to make judgements about the reliability of evidence and the way research is conducted if we are to develop as practitioners who deliver evidence based care and services.

Evidence based practice in health and social care

Evidence-based practice in social care has been described by Brian Sheldon as

“the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the welfare of those in need” (Sheldon and Shilvers 2000).

The evidence-based movement started in the United States, primarily in medicine, and has been extended in the UK to various disciplines and professions, including education, criminal justice, nursing and social work and social care.

Defining research in health and social care

Research means different things in different contexts, but it can also describe a number of different and diverse activities that, put together, form a research process.

Research can be viewed as a process that involves the collection of information (data) followed by organising and analysing, reflecting on the data in order to produce new knowledge, ideas or insights, using described, rigorous and ethical ways to do it (the methods).

You may have carried out some of these activities in your workplace or when studying. You may not have realised you were ‘researching’ because it was informal, in the sense that you weren’t completing a research study, but these activities are largely the same as used in more formal research.

So, while you may be familiar with researching as an activity or a process, thinking about research as a wider concept can often seem confusing, especially given the language and writing style used to represent research and findings. Formal research differs from informal activities because it pulls them together into a specific process, where what you do, how you do it, and what you do with the results have to be specified at the beginning.

Research Governance

In health and social care, how we do research, particularly how we involve others in the process is guided by professional values and ethical principles and has to be managed or governed to make sure that the research is of a good quality. One of the strong principles we hold to in practice and in research is placing service-users and their needs at the heart of our work.

This is also emphasised in the UK Policy Framework for Health and Social Care Research , published by the NHS Health Research Authority.

Research carried out in health and social care has to comply with the regulations set down in this document and Research Governance is the process by which this is managed.

To some extent, the Framework has been set up to reduce risk and to reassure people about research conduct. It sets standards around a number of key research issues, such as consent, confidentiality and data protection. It has also been seen as an attempt to bring together a number of ethical considerations from a range of disciplines and professional contexts.


All agencies and organisations have in place processes for managing research and all research should be approved before it begins. The work is usually conducted by a group of specialists (sometimes referred to as an Ethics Committee) who can give independent scrutiny and advice about the topic to be researched, the methods to be used and the difficulties or issues it presents.

Decisions made through these bodies will be steered by reference to an ethical framework or code, which represents the values of a particular professional or disciplinary group.

Ethics is, therefore, concerned with making sure that the way things are done complies with ideas that might be held about what is right, fair and good in a particular context and this applies equally to practice and research.

Professor Ian Butler, a social work academic, emphasises this point clearly:

“Social work research is about social workers, what they think, what they believe, what knowledge they claim and what they do with it and its primary (but not its only) audience will be social workers, service users and those who determine who falls into which category for the purposes of social policy. If this is so, then the ethics of social work research must, I suggest, be at least compatible if not coterminous with the ethics of social work.” (Butler, 2000:3)

Research Funding

The NIHR Research for Social Care (RfSC) call is a bi-annual competition specifically for social care proposals. The aim of this call is to fund topics and research methodologies that increase the effectiveness of social care services, provide value for money and benefit service users and carers.

Fellowships and Internships

NIHR ARC Wessex Research Awards
Would you like to learn more about research? Would you like funding to pay for your time, training, mentorship and support to do a small project in your area of choice? The NIHR Applied Research Collaborations (ARC) Wessex is pleased to offer a number of attractive research awards to help build the next generation of health and care researchers.

Career development support and training

There is a wide range of NIHR training and career development awards available at different levels and accessible by different professional backgrounds.

Training Opportunities

ARC Wessex Academy
The ARC Wessex Academy provide training opportunities and access to career development as part of their research funding from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

Free Online Courses

NIHR Learn
NIHR Learn is an online Learning Management System and the platform used to deliver accredited learning programmes. They offer a range of courses to develop your knowledge of clinical research and support you to do what you do best.

To register for an account you will need to navigate to and click on the “Create Account” link.

Current social care research courses available on NIHR Learn are listed below.

Introduction to Research in Adult Social Care Settings
For adult social care and social work practitioners who are new to research.

Social Care Learning Community Courses
Module 1– Introduction to social care
Aims to develop your awareness of the adult social care sector
Module 2– NIHR and social care research
Aims to develop your understanding of how the NIHR supports social care research
Module 3– Social care research: similarities and differences
Is currently being developed.

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