As a flick through the learned pages of the British Journal of Social Work will tell you, our universities are full of academics only too happy to talk to each other. Research funders have often asked them to strip out the jargon and address a wider audience in need of their wisdom, but with limited effect.
Now the government is raising the stakes: it has announced a National School for Social Care Research which will receive £15m over the next five years for research that can make a real impact on the frontline of practice. Or, at least, that’s the idea.
Care services minister Ivan Lewis (right), unveiling plans for the school at the end of May, was in aspirational mood: “We want to improve the evidence for social care practice so that we can be sure that people in this country are provided with better and more effective services in the future. This new school will make a major contribution to improving the volume and quality of the research in the English social care sector.”
In comparison with the mind-boggling sums spent on health research, however, the new school’s annual £3m is pocket money. Its parent body, the National Institute for Health Research, doles out more than £200m a year to NHS trusts for research and development and vastly more is spent by other organisations on medical research generally. But the promise of additional research funding for social care is at least recognition by the government that it needs more evidence of what works if it is to meet the challenges of a rapidly ageing population and services better attuned to prevention and personalisation.
The Social Care Institute for Excellence, which has to make some unappetising research findings palatable for frontline consumption, has welcomed the social care research school and will have a seat on the management board. “This will bring more money into social care research from other disciplines through more interdisciplinary projects and build a stronger bridge between the research and practice communities,” says Amanda Edwards, head of knowledge services at Scie.
Fit for the fight
“It’s about developing the practice evidence base so that the social care workforce can use these research findings.”
Edwards says empirical research on issues that exercise practitioners is often lacking. “It’s not about whether existing research is worthless, but whether there is a focus on policy and policy implementation that doesn’t necessarily address some of the questions that are taxing practitioners and the people who use services. The money might not be huge compared with what health has got, but it’s £3m more than we’ve got at the moment,” she says.
Lewis launched the National School for Social Care Research with a call for researchers to join up. It followed a recommendation in Dame Denise Platt’s Status of Social Care Review last year, which urged the Department of Health to establish a research centre of excellence to ensure that social care is fit for the fight in front of it.
Reaction to the initiative from academics has been broadly positive, although some have reservations. “Anyone in social care will be delighted with this announcement,” says Bob Hudson, visiting professor of public policy at the University of Durham. “But £3m is pretty modest compared with health and the priority routes for accessing the funding are restricted to a small number of departments with the highest research rankings that already have large, long-term contracts with the DH.”
Peter Beresford (right), professor of social policy at Brunel University and board member of the NIHR, agrees that the frugal funding could go mostly to the established players, but sees the school as a chance to readjust the focus of big research projects with an unjustified medical bias.
“Many of the big mental health research projects are still medically oriented, usually involving randomised control trials on drug treatment regimes, but the new school should begin the process of getting more social understanding at the heart of health research,” says Beresford, who also chairs user organisation Shaping Our Lives.
Both academics welcome the school’s aims of funding research by social care professionals and encouraging collaboration with users and carers. Hudson envisages alliances of research institutions drawing up bids which stand the best chance of success if they show genuine engagement with groups often excluded from research.
“The novel thing would be to involve the whole gamut of stakeholders – commissioners, providers, users and carers,” Hudson says. “It should be research that is relevant to people’s daily lives and needs, and developed with them.”
For Beresford this is a chance to achieve levels of user involvement in research, including research led by users, that would have been unthinkable in the past. But, like Hudson, he foresees formidable obstacles to the DH’s ambitions.
“The people they are going to recruit as fellows and academics of this college will be those who are already funded by the government to carry out research,” Beresford says. “Organisations like the Social Policy Research Unit and the Personal Social Services Research Unit produce high quality research nevertheless it’s important that researchers outside this charmed circle are equally considered.”
But the strong emphasis on research contributing to effective service delivery should be an incentive for the new school to cast the net more widely. As a member of the governing board, Scie will be well placed to make sure that the school sticks to its mission and has an eye to social care practice. Amanda Edwards sees this as non-negotiable: “It won’t be a talking shop for academics. If that’s their intention, they won’t get the funding.”
She gives short shrift to critics who say that childcare practice will be neglected by the new school, insisting that “children’s services won’t be forgotten”. Issues such as transition from childhood to adulthood and aspects of parenting and its impact on children are part of the brief, she says.
Scie is also involved in a multi-agency Social Care Research Collaboration with the Economic and Social Research Council, which, as the main funding body in the field, has appointed its first strategic adviser for social work and social care research. The adviser will link up with the Research Collaboration to build more research capacity in higher education, essential if the new money is to be well spent.
“We need to strengthen capacity in the universities, encourage more PhD students and stimulate more interdisciplinary work with subjects like psychology and economics,” Edwards says. “It’s also about developing partnerships between universities and adult social services departments in the same way as GPs and nurses have established their own academic connections. The work has only just begun.”
The Economic and Social Research Council
This article appeared in the 10 July issue under the headline “School of thought”