Research Practice Collaboration

What’s needed to strengthen research-practice collaboration in social care?

 By Hannah Kendrick, Annette Boaz and Juliette Malley



Compared to health, the social care sector experiences low levels of research engagement, poor infrastructure, a lack of research skills, and low levels of evidence use. In 2022, the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) was renamed and brought social care explicitly within its strategy, introducing a range of capacity-building fellowships for social care practitioners and targeted funding streams designed to tackle these issues, which could lead to more evidence-based learning in the UK. On behalf of a variety of stakeholders within the Adult Social Care (ASC) partnership community as a whole, we produced an evidence synthesis and plain English summary to introduce the broader social care sector to current policy and funding support, and possibilities for collaboration. 

Drawing on insights from stakeholders and academic literature, we found that collaborative approaches have great potential. However, current vacancy levels, turnover, lack of research infrastructure, and difficulty buying out time for social care professionals are ongoing barriers. While increased NIHR funding is promising, it is vital to tailor programmes towards social care organisations and provide long-term funding and infrastructure solutions. National policy priorities need to reflect the value of social care by not only viewing the sector as means to reduce pressure on acute services. Finally, reinstating research infrastructure within Local Authorities is key for making structural changes to social care practitioner roles and skills development.

What research engagement support is currently offered?

Within the higher education sector more broadly, barriers towards research impact and use remain. Processes and academic career progression are still orientated to traditional academic metrics, rather than how research influences practice. However, this is changing: There are now greater expectations that universities demonstrate real-world impact on wider society by producing relevant and engaged research. The Research Excellent Framework (REF) assesses impact of work beyond academia, with the opportunity to submit impact case studies. Whilst the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) allows Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) to better understand and improve their own performance in knowledge exchange. Space is therefore opening for academic-practice partnerships to be valued within academic measures of success.

Building research capacity and capability within social care is a core strategic priority for the NIHR, and resulting in better academic-practice connections in the sector. As part of this strategy, they have issued a range of fellowships aimed at social care practitioners, including the Local Authority Academic Fellowship programme; targeted funding streams, including the Adult Social Care Partnership call; and specific initiatives through Applied Research Collaborations (ARCs).

More broadly, ARCs provide valuable infrastructure and support to facilitate research and practice collaborations within ASC. The fellowships and training programmes that practitioners can access to build their capacity and skills were especially important to stakeholders interviewed. Other such research-practice infrastructures include the Health Determinants Research Collaborations (HDRC), and IMPACT, the UK centre for implementing evidence in adult social care. This infrastructure has potential to help social care organisations who face challenges writing and managing large research contracts.

Approaches to research and practice collaboration

Some research and practice collaborations have drawn on the Communities of Practice approach, such as the Social Care Research in Practice Teams (SCRiPT), the ASC Kent Research Partnership, and the Curiosity Partnership. Others have drawn upon the model of Research Practice Partnerships (RPPs), such as the Creating Care Partnerships project. Integral to both approaches is relationship building, joint activities and collaborative working that help to form a coherent identity for the community or RPP.

Other approaches to building research and practice teams stipulate more specific roles taken on by research and practice partners, with the development of ‘practitioner-researchers’, ‘pracademics’, or evidence/research champions. For example, the Peninsula Adult Social Care Research Collaborative (PARC) is setting up embedded research teams inside social care organisations, involving a social worker trained to carry out research and an experienced researcher to support the practitioner. Another example is the Connecting Evidence with Decision making (ConnectED) project that brings together researchers-in-residence and evidence champions to form the core part of the research and practice teams, whilst drawing in broader members of staff from within the local authority.

Challenges building research-practice collaborations

  • Local authority capacity: A lack of time and funding is a huge barrier to research engagement in local authorities. Workload, high turnover of managers, and gatekeeping by senior managers means that research-practice collaborations may not always reach frontline staff. Challenges also remain for finance and HR systems to accommodate hybrid roles that are part funded through research grants. Unlike the NHS, social care does not have an established research culture. Given the broader workforce and funding crisis that social care faces, stakeholders also expressed frustration at contradictions between funding social care research roles and capacity-building, whilst not solving more pressing crises.
  • Limited and complex research funding opportunities: For those in social care, NIHR infrastructure and fellowships are complicated and difficult to keep track of. Whist stakeholders were frustrated with Clinical Research Networks’ reporting requirements for recruitment figures, which are more applicable to clinical trials than research conducted in social care. A major concern was the short-term nature of funding and lack of infrastructure means it is likely that partnerships will collapse following the end of the funding period.
  • Marginalisation of social care in UK policy: The NHS achieves greater resources and higher political and cultural status than social care. Stakeholders interviewed criticised the integration agenda for framing social care as both the problem and solution to bed blocking and pressure on the health service, rather than valuable in its own right.

Strengthening research-practice collaboration in social care

Building greater research capacity and use within social care can potentially improve evidence-based practice, create empowering and critically reflective roles for practitioners, and improve outcomes for those who use services. A range of exciting approaches to research and practice collaboration are currently being developed, with increasing opportunities for capacity-building funding available through NIHR. However, many challenges still hinder the development of stronger research-practice collaborations.

These challenges may be overcome by the following actions, as identified in our review:

  • Government departments better aligning their social care strategies to prevent contradictions between increased funding for research on one hand, and chronic underfunding and little action on pay and workloads on the other.
  • National policy on health and care is still biased in favour of health concerns. Policy priorities should reflect the value of social care, not just as means to reduce pressure on acute services.
  • Research-practice collaborations need longer term funding and infrastructure development. Reinstating research governance offices and a named research governance lead within local authorities will enable a stronger research culture within social care.
  • Structural changes to social care practitioner roles to include research within their job description and annual reviews would normalise involvement and necessitate conducive organisational practices and processes.
  • Greater skills development is needed for practitioner researchers to be creative, resilient, and flexible in navigating traditionally separate systems, processes, cultures, and traditions.

While there is no silver bullet when it comes to integrating social care research and practice, the increasing strategic focus on these partnerships is a promising sign. When combined with a set of well-directed and structural actions across government departments, policy, local councils and within research institutes, there may be a path forward for increased research capacity and evidence-based decision-making in the social care sector.