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Investing in better social care research

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"Most readers of this blog will know someone who uses adult social care services," says Professor Martin Knapp, Director of the NIHR School for Social Care Research in his debut post for Social Care News. "You may actually be that ‘someone’. And it’s likely that many of you will have social care needs yourselves at some point."

Professor Martin Knapp - portrait
Professor Martin Knapp: 'Good [social care] research can address questions suggested by individual experience or prompted by wider changes.'
So it’s fair to say we will all want an adult social care system that is fit for purpose. The system should be good at identifying social care needs, responding to changes over time, and should understand individuals’ preferences about how their needs are met, as well as the personal strengths they bring to the care setting.

It should recognise and support family and other unpaid carers.

It should recognise people as individuals. It should recruit and retain a skilled workforce, and support that workforce.

It should recognise the enormous contributions that communities make.

A high-performing social care system goes further. It ensures that every individual with social care needs - whatever their circumstances – has access to support, and has a choice about that support. A good social care system will also be funded fairly and sustainably

And, importantly, it will be built on solid research evidence. That is why the recent announcement by NIHR that it will fund a third phase of the School for Social Care Research (NIHR SSCR) is so welcome.

Just under £20 million has been committed over 5 years to continue the work of the School. This includes £1.8 million specifically targeted on building research capacity.

Electron microscopes shining light on a slide sample

Research helps

Research is only one ingredient into decision-making. It offers evidence to be considered and helps decision-makers.

Good research can address questions suggested by individual experience or prompted by wider changes, including population ageing, shifting societal priorities, changes in public expenditure, breakthroughs in healthcare, changes in welfare, and even (whisper it quietly) possible workforce implications of Brexit.

So what does ‘good’ look like? Good research includes the following ingredients:

  • the views and opinions of people who use services and provide unpaid care, and also of service practitioners;
  • measures that show how progress is (or is not) being made
  • measures of the resources needed for that progress
  • contributions from more than one academic discipline to find the best framework for interpreting data
  • And it will be ethically sound and have the informed consent of participants.


These are among the principles that have underpinned the work of the School since it was established. What exactly gets researched by the School depends in part on our consultation: we listen to people who use services, carers, practitioners, managers, local authorities, organisations that provide services, third sector bodies and even other researchers!

Research themes might include:

  • Met and unmet needs; prevention
  • New approaches to care and social work practice
  • Workforce development and retention, new ways of working
  • Issues for people who self-fund their care; supporting carers
  • Working with communities, social prescribing, personalisation
  • Care market management, especially of quality
  • Diversity, inequality and marginalised communities
  • Interfaces with other systems, especially housing, hospitals, primary care, employment.

None of this is set in stone. Indeed, the programme should evolve over time as new ideas and challenges emerge.

More than just NIHR SSCR

NIHR’s continuing commitment to SSCR is just part of a wider push to encourage and support research on adult social care.

This is not a case of just adding the words ‘and social care’ every time an NIHR call or initiative mentions health research. The NIHR is investing in research skills and researchers, as well as making sure that commissioning panels and reviewers include people with expertise in social care. It is about helping local authorities and social care providers to be ‘research-ready’ – indeed to be ‘research-hungry’. As the leading funder of social care research, NIHR has an enormous amount to contribute.


There are huge pressures on adult social care today. The Government is expected to publish a Green Paper soon that will stimulate widespread debate about how social care should be funded, organised and accessed. NIHR-supported research can contribute enormously to this debate and to the future shaping of adult social care.

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