Research Design Service
National Institute for Health Research

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The Importance of the Research Question

The Importance of the Research Question

01 June 2018

Catriona McDaid, RDS York Manager & Senior Research Fellow and Lizzie Coates, Research Associate/Trial Manager - RDS Yorkshire & Humber

To ensure your grant application to NIHR is as competitive as possible, it needs to have a clearly articulated research question that will provide evidence to inform decision making in health or social care. These could be decisions made by patients or the public, professionals or policy makers.

Research ideas come from lots of different sources - challenges faced in clinical practice, gaps in the evidence base, public and patient interest - but they rarely come as a perfectly formed research question! If you come to RDS at an early stage of your proposal development, we can help you to shape and refine your idea into a research question that has the best possible chance of getting funded.

RDS advisers can help you in several ways. This usually involves discussions around what the problem is that you are trying to address, why it is an important issue and what difference your planned research will make to practice, policy or patient experience. Often researchers want to dive straight into the study design; after all they have come to a research design service!  But a study can be rigorously designed yet struggle to get funding if the potential impact is not clear. When thinking about the importance of your research question things to consider include whether any groups have highlighted the topic as important, for example, Royal Colleges, the James Lind Alliance or NICE.

Another good way to start refining your research question is to do a 3-minute elevator pitch to colleagues and get their feedback. Useful things to cover are:

  • What the problem is and why is it important
  • How you will address the problem
  • What is the anticipated impact of the research?

Setting out your ideas in this way can also help when seeking feedback from stakeholders.

Any consideration of the research question needs to be informed by what research is already out there and this will be a key part of the discussions in early meetings with RDS. A scoping review will help ensure that the same question has not already been adequately tackled in previous or ongoing research. We can also provide advice on identifying systematic reviews and undertaking literature searches to provide background evidence for your proposal.

All of this might sound quite orderly but the reality is that developing your research proposal is quite an iterative process. For example, discussions with patients, colleagues and other stakeholders, as well unearthing new literature, can sometimes mean that you have to go back to the drawing board on your research question. But the earlier that happens the better as it should avoid substantial changes later on when you have already written lots of the bid, and crucially, lead to meaningful, high quality research.

Next month ‘From the RDS desk’ will be showing you how to ensure you have ‘quality’ in your qualitative research

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