Health and medical research funding agencies' promotion of public engagement within research: a qualitative interview study exploring the UK context

Van Bekkum, J. E., Fergie, G. and Hilton, S. (2016) Health and medical research funding agencies' promotion of public engagement within research: a qualitative interview study exploring the UK context. Health Research Policy and Systems, 14(23), (doi: 10.1186/s12961-016-0093-4) (PMID:27009326) (PMCID:PMC4806422)

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Background: Public engagement (PE) has become a common feature of many liberal governmental agendas worldwide. Since the turn of this century there has been a succession of United Kingdom policy initiatives to encourage research funding agencies, universities and researchers to reconsider how they engage with citizens and communities. Although most funding agencies now explicitly promote PE within research, little empirical work has been carried out in this area. In this study, we explored why and how health and medical research funding agencies in the United Kingdom have interpreted and implemented their role to promote PE within research. Methods: Semi-structured interviews were carried out with 30 key informants from 10 agencies that fund health or medical research. Data were also gathered from agencies’ websites and documentation. The analysis was based on the constant comparative method. Results: Across agencies, we found that PE was being interpreted and operationalised in various different ways. The terminology used within funding agencies to describe PE seems to be flexibly applied. Disciplinary differences were evident both in the terminology used to describe PE and the drivers for PE highlighted by participants – with applied health science funders more aligned with participatory models of PE. Within the grant funding process PE was rarely systematically treated as a key component of research. In particular, PE was not routinely incorporated into the planning of funding calls. PE was more likely to be considered in the application and assessment phases, where it was largely appraised as a tool for enhancing science. Concerns were expressed regarding how to monitor and evaluate PE within research. Conclusions: This study suggests funding agencies working within specific areas of health and medicine can promote particular definitions of PE and aligned practices which determine the boundaries in which researchers working in these areas understand and practice PE. Our study also highlights how the research grant process works to privilege particular conceptions of PE and its purpose. Tensions are evident between some funders’ core concepts of traditional science and PE, and they face challenges as they try to embed PE into long-standing systems that prioritise particular conceptions of ‘scientific excellence’ in research.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Hilton, Professor Shona and Fergie, Dr Gillian and Van Bekkum, Dr Jennifer
Authors: Van Bekkum, J. E., Fergie, G., and Hilton, S.
College/School:College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > School of Health & Wellbeing > MRC/CSO SPHSU
Journal Name:Health Research Policy and Systems
Publisher:BioMed Central
ISSN (Online):1478-4505
Copyright Holders:Copyright © 2016 van Bekkum et al.
First Published:First published in Health Research Policy and Systems 14:23
Publisher Policy:Reproduced under a creative commons license

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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
727671SPHSU Core Renewal: Informing Healthy Public Policy Research ProgrammePeter CraigMedical Research Council (MRC)MC_UU_12017/15IHW - MRC/CSO SPHU
656611Understanding and Use of Public Health ResearchShona HiltonMedical Research Council (MRC)MC_UU_12017/6IHW - MRC/CSO SPHU