Activity based funding and student research in the NHS

Yesterday I spent time with a group of MSc students, talking about research review processes. I’ve written on this blog in the past about my experiences of seeking approvals for my PhD, and in Monday’s session I urged people to be exceptionally cautious about planning NHS-related research in pursuit of their Master’s degrees.

Preparing for and securing NHS research ethics committee and R&D office approvals takes time. In this part of the world at least, some healthcare organisations are also likely to ask researchers to cover the costs to the NHS of supporting studies which are not portfolio adopted. Here I’m thinking of, for example, the costs arising when staff leave the workplace to participate in interviews or join focus groups, or suchlike.

The relatively new practice of directly seeking payment from research teams for the costs of studies which are not eligible for portfolio registration has appeared with the shift to activity-based funding. Here in Wales, the National Institute for Social Care and Health Research (NISCHR) has published criteria for entry to its portfolio, which are summarised here and are elaborated on here. It is from this second document that I have snipped the following:

A research study is a structured activity which is intended to provide new knowledge which is generalisable (ie of value to others in a similar situation) and intended for wider dissemination.

Studies eligible for the NISCHR portfolio should involve face to face contact with NHS patients, social care service users or people involved with their care. Studies must be led from and/or recruiting participants from Wales. All studies must already have research funding before they can be included in the Portfolio.  Research Costs cannot be provided by NISCHR CRC.

The following types of study are not eligible for inclusion in the NISCHR Portfolio:

  • audit,
  • needs assessments,
  • quality improvement projects,
  • directly commissioned studies,
  • secondary research such as systematic reviews,
  • purely laboratory based studies,
  • routine biobanking of samples would not be eligible but a hypothesis based sample collection would be if appropriately peer reviewed and funded,
  • own account funded studies,
  • studies closed to recruitment.

MSc projects invariably do not meet these criteria, meaning that numbers of taught postgraduate students get to cut their dissertation teeth on non-NHS research studies or (where academic regulations allow) on other types of project altogether. Examples are service or quality improvements, service evaluations and systematic reviews. And, in my view, these are sufficiently testing options for students working at MSc level, with some (like local quality improvements) having the added advantage of immediately and obviously benefiting the NHS and those who use its services.

However, a problem arises in the case of postgraduate research degrees. In some disciplines, including nursing, these are often undertaken part-time and are carried out with limited or no external grant income. Opportunities for studentships are relatively rare, and where they are available may be financially unattractive to practitioners who have already built careers in the health service. As with MSc projects, ‘own account’ doctorates will struggle to get onto the portfolio. They therefore run the risk (in some circumstances) of not being supported by organisations within the NHS unless their associated costs are explicitly met. One way of achieving this may be for local NHS managers to agree to carry the costs of non-portfolio studies which it is planned will take place within their services. But securing this kind of support is not straightforward, and for would-be research students the added challenge of finding a means of paying costs is hardly an encouragement. And, where MSc students can usually opt for non-research projects this is not so for those aiming for PhDs or Professional Doctorates. These are awards made only to those who generate new knowledge using sound and defensible research methods.

So what does all this mean? It’s early days, but one likely outcome may be a reduction in small-scale research projects within the NHS, along with an increase in the preparations and negotiations which precede data generation. Another may be the proliferation of non-portfolio projects which are explicitly designed to meet ‘research’ criteria for academic award purposes, but which are constructed to be something else (typically ‘service evaluation’) within the context of NHS research governance. A reasonable, longer-term, concern is that research capacity-building in fields like nursing may falter as potential students rethink their plans. And that, in my view, would be a big step backwards.


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