Blog: what the public thinks of research and why it matters

Last updated on 12 Mar 2018

By Amanda Hunn Amanda Hunn

“And what do you do?” “I work in health research.”

Whenever someone asks what I do for a living, the initial reaction tends to be positive: health research is seen as interesting and something that’s good for society. But sometimes they voice concerns and misconceptions such as about research sponsored by pharmaceutical companies or about research involving children.

Some will take the view that the test of whether health research is successful is where it’s improving patient treatment and care, not whether public perception is positive. But knowing what the public thinks about research is crucial, especially as those attitudes can have a direct effect on research itself.

That’s why the Health Research Authority and National Institute for Health Research have worked together on a detailed study of what the public thinks about health research. We have worked with respected pollsters Ipsos MORI to gather the views of one thousand people on a variety of health research topics. The information has been gathered through face-to-face interviews, and the group is a representative sample, so we can be happy it represents the views of the wider population.

The headline figure is that eight in ten people think health research is very important. 

83 per cent of people say health research is very important

That’s good news, because it’s nice to know people value the work you do. But it’s also good news because that support translates into aspects that make research easier to do, especially recruiting volunteers.

The study found people are confident their personal data would be held securely if they took part in research (especially relevant with the upcoming data protection law changes this year).

Data is held securely infographic

And half of people think patients receive a better quality of care at hospitals that also carry out research, a view we’ve seen consistently in previous studies.

Closer to home, there is positive feedback where our work at the Health Research Authority is involved, particularly that people have confidence in health research knowing it has been reviewed by a Research Ethics Committee.

Confidence in RECs infographic

But it isn’t all positive and a deeper dig into people’s perception of health research shows a more complex picture. For all the positive noises about taking part in research, confidence in taking part in a study clearly drops where people know it is funded by a pharmaceutical company. Interestingly, where people know that pharmaceutical companies are working closely with the NHS, their confidence increases significantly.

There are also some notable negative perceptions of research among lower socio-economic groups and ethnic minorities. 

Ethnic minority disparity infographic

As the foreword to the report says, such negative perceptions are a potential barrier to these groups accessing and taking part in research, and the knock-on consequence for health research is an issue requiring urgent and collective action by all research organisations.

Read the full report, including a foreword and executive summary. 

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