National Institute of Health Research

Identifying research questions

A group in discussion

Identifying important research questions for the NHS and public health

Four of the five NIHR Evaluation, Trials and Studies (NETS) programmes have a commissioned workstream: the Efficacy Mechanism and Evaluation (EME) Programme, the Health Service and Delivery Research (HS&DR) Programme, the Health Technology Assessment (HTA) Programme, and the Public Health Research (PHR) Programme. They all aim to fund research that evaluates existing interventions and treatments of uncertain value.

All the programmes have the same underlying principle: commissioning research which meets the information needs of healthcare and public health professionals, practitioners, policy makers, patients and the general public.

The NETS programmes work with external organisations and individuals to identify research questions which are likely to make the greatest difference to people's health.  We also receive suggestions for research through our online web form.  These suggestions are considered individually by the relevant programme which decides whether they should form the basis of an advert for research. 

It is important to identify the right research questions

  1. It enables us to specify and fund research which is important to the NHS and the public health community
  2. Healthcare and public health professionals, policy makers, patients and the public are involved in shaping the research agenda
  3. Careful identification ensures that our programmes fund research that meets the needs of the NHS and its patients.

How we identify questions

There are a number of ways we identify important research questions:

  • Engaging with key stakeholders within the NHS, public health community and the NIHR, including the NIHR Horizon Scanning Centre (NHSC) which looks for new technologies that are likely to be available to the NHS within the next few years.
  • Working with the James Lind Alliance (JLA ) Priority Setting Partnerships (PSPs) which bring patients, carers and clinicians together to identify and prioritise the treatment uncertainties which they agree are the most important for research.
  • External engagement with people and organisations that are most likely to know where research is needed. This includes policy makers and organisations representing health professionals (e.g. Royal Colleges) or patients and carers (e.g. charities and support groups) running identification exercises with external groups and networks to gather research suggestions in specific areas and reach a wide external audience.  For example, we have run exercises in the areas of mental health, respiratory medicine, neurosurgery and primary care.
  • Extracting research recommendations from high quality research and guidelines.  These include completed reviews from the Cochrane Library and guidance published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
  • Inviting anyone to suggest a research question at any time by visiting our website.

What happens to research suggestions?

  • We check suggestions to make sure they fall within the remit of the NETS research programmes.
  • The appropriate programme considers each suggestion and may refer them to an advisory panel or board for prioritisation.
  • Programmes carry out checks to make sure that potential research questions are not too similar to research already available or which is being carried out. This supports the NIHR’s efforts to prevent duplication of research.
  • After careful consideration, some questions are prioritised and advertised through the programmes’ commissioned workstream.
  • Researchers are invited to submit applications for research that is advertised.

Further information on processes for prioritising and commissioning research can be found on the individual programme pages.


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