Telling a research story

I, like many of my RDS colleagues, spend a lot of time with clinicians who are making their first forays into both research and the processes involved with obtaining research funding. In my experience, the two are often very different things, although obviously, and often inextricably, linked.

Research always begins with a question and, as far as NIHR funding is concerned, that question often originates from an observed problems in, or frustrations with, clinical practice. From these research questions flow the stages of the scientific method – the appropriate methodologies, outcome measures, and analysis plans. All are essential steps and, as such, are vitally important aspects of any research proposal vying for competitive funding. However, the process of securing such funding requires more than a good question being addressed in the most appropriate way. As far as the NIHR is concerned, there is a need to demonstrate the priority of your specific topic of research.

Demonstrating priority is not always an easy task, especially for someone who is intimately familiar with their own specific topic. We all know the importance of our own chosen field; to us it is self-evident. However, this will not necessarily be the case for a funding panel full of experts in fields other than our own.

The NIHR is a funder that puts users of the NHS in the spotlight. Consultation and involvement with service users is expected throughout the research process – from the very inception of the research idea right the way through to the dissemination of research results and into clinical practice. There is a fairly underwhelming diagram which the NIHR uses to explain its structure – you can find it here, if you are so inspired. I use it, on occasions, to highlight the fact that patients and the public are at the very centre. And this is the way to demonstrate the priority of your research application – you need to put the patients and the public at the centre.

It sounds obvious – after all, what else is health research about if not patients? – but it is something far too often missed. It’s easy to get tied up in the clinical/methodological/statistical/whatever-ical detail when writing a research application and, amongst all this, the patient can get lost.

When talking to researcher about their applications, I often talk about the need to tell a story. A good research application is a story in which the patients are the lead characters who have a shot at their happy endings.

A good story has a protagonist, some obstacle they need to overcome, and a way in which they do so. To simply tell a story of how something is done is not all that interesting, but hearing about how someone achieves something makes for a captivating tale.

And captivating tales are the ones that funding panels are going to want to read, and fund, right to the very end.