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Social care research: What is it? Where to go? What to do?

Social care research: What is it? Where to go? What to do?

01 November 2022

Paul Clarkson, Specialist Social Care Adviser, RDS North West

Talk of social care is everywhere at the moment. It’s certainly out there politically, with much debate about how social care could be funded. Practice is certainly pressured and there are workforce capacity issues. But social care is not just about funding models. It is a sector (or, more precisely, a collection of sectors) in its own right. Outside of the NHS but working with it and involving a host of different organisations – local authorities, social work, care homes, home care, and voluntary sector support agencies – it can be a confusing world, especially to new researchers. But research is vital to generating the evidence base for practice in this sector: “today’s research is tomorrow’s practice”. 

There’s lots of activity at the moment, particularly within NIHR, concerned with funding specifically social care research, raising capacity to do research (particularly by social care professionals), and advising researchers on social care specific issues. This activity is certainly more than a name change to the National Institute for Health and Care Research. But researchers, especially those new to social care, or professionals who want to develop a research role, are finding the whole arena and opportunities hard to grasp. What counts as social care research? Where do you go to find out more about it? And, what makes for good social care research?

What is social care research?

This seems a strange question to ask. But we know in the social care research community that, often, researchers new to it, and even the research funders themselves, are confused about it. Social care is definitely not part of, or controlled by, the NHS. But nurses, for example, do work in social care (in care homes for instance). So, it can be unclear for researchers, well versed in health services research, to see the sector as any different, or that language or research questions need to be pitched in a different way. There are no special ‘methods’ of social care research; research for social care investigates issues using the same range of methods as applied health services research does: literature reviews, secondary data, intervention studies, or qualitative research. There are even social care trials, although fewer than in the NHS, as the research infrastructure to support them is under-developed. It is the setting itself that is different, not the methods or analyses. That even extends to the outcomes of social care services, which are quite different to the NHS, and are more about wellbeing than cure or successful treatment. So, there are lots of skills, researchers already have if they want to do social care research. But the sector itself is messy and complex. Fortunately, increasingly, there are people out there who can help and support you.

Where do I go?

The first-place researchers can go to get a handle on what social care research is and the range of studies that have been funded is the NIHR School for Social Care Research (SSCR). There you can also find publications, events, and a “who’s who” of researchers undertaking social care research. The SSCR also has a Capacity Building Team, dedicated to raising capacity for social care research. This includes funded Career Development Awards and studentships. 

Of course, the NIHR Research Design Service (RDS) is here to support researchers in developing and writing applications for funding and most regions now have dedicated, specialist social care advisers who can help decipher the sector for you; they can advise on the different funding streams relevant to your research idea. The RDS also offers events like dedicated social care grant writing retreats and other proposal development events. Advisers can signpost you to other parts of the NIHR infrastructure that support research, for example the Clinical Research Networks (CRNs), who can help plan support for recruiting participants to studies, including the costings for this. Most CRN regions also now have social care speciality leads who know the sector and can point you in the right direction. And, in the last few years, the RDS has worked with the CRNs in capacity-building for social care. There’s actually never been a better time to do social care research. 

What do I do now?

The process for contacting the RDS for social care research is the same as for any other research enquiry, through your local RDS office. Advisers there can advise on social care and put you in touch with social care specialists who can support you along the way to engaging with this sector, its particular sector-specific issues and challenges.


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