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What are embedded researchers and what influence do they have in public health settings?

What do we want to know?

Widespread concerns exist about whether the research produced within academic settings is useful or usable for decision-making and whether policy and practice organisations are sufficiently evidence informed. Embedding researchers into policy and other settings may represent one way of radically changing the ecosystem in which evidence is generated and applied. Bridging links between where research is produced and where it could usefully be applied could help to produce research evidence that more closely matches the need of decision-makers. Such roles could be a way of enhancing research capacity within policy/practice organisations to enable them to become more involved in the research process either as consumers, generators, commissioners, influencers, stakeholders or a mixture of these roles. There may also be benefits for research organisations through maximising the impact of research that is produced.

This research explored what form embedded researcher interventions take and the influence they have, with a particular focus on public health settings. 

What research was undertaken?

To investigate variation in embedded researcher practice and their role in enhancing levels of research activity within organisations, we drew upon four types of evidence:

  1. Existing published evidence synthesised through different approaches
  2. New data collected on the implementation of Public Health Local Authority Research Practitioner (PHLARP) posts. This scheme involved placing research practitioners, who facilitated research and conducted research, into Local Authority public health teams (we refer to these researchers as Public Health Local Authority Research Practitioners (PHLARPs); this was a scheme funded by the National Institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR) and delivered through the Clinical Research Network (CRN)).
  3. New data collected on an allied scheme also intended to support Local Authority public health teams to become more research active - described here as the Public Health Leaders study 
  4. New data to elicit the preferences of researchers around how such roles should be designed in the future

What did we find?

  1. ‘Embedded researcher’ is a term that describes a wide variety of activities that can help organisations become more research active. Embedded researcher interventions differ across several dimensions including the direction (researcher embedded in policy/practice setting vs policy-maker or practitioner embedded in research setting); the composition and balance of activities that help to foster a more research active culture (generating research, mobilising research, or facilitating research); as well as the type of embeddedness (for example, the extent to which a researcher was embedded through being physically present in the host organisation or whether they were embedded more remotely). 
  2. Embedded researchers do activate precursors in research activity that could lead to sustained organisational culture change. Throughout this research we identified a number of examples where embedded researchers have made early or incremental changes to the research culture in an organisation through growing networks, becoming a local expert and champion, and enhancing evidence ‘fluency’ (the skills needed to source and interpret evidence) or curiosity about evidence and research. 
  3. An embedded researcher intervention can be viewed as a staged approach that requires an ‘embedding phase’. This embedding phase includes activities that increase understanding of the organisation’s needs, that secure local influence, and maximise the visibility of the embedded researcher in the host organisation. A key enabler of this phase is developing trusting relationships with the host organisation. Trust can be viewed as setting the foundation for becoming embedded within an organisation.
  4. The aims of embedded researcher interventions tend to be ambitious and not always commensurate with the scale of the intervention (both with respect to the length of the placement and number of embedded researchers), the status/power wielded by the researcher, and the existing level of research activity. 
  5. Our research underscores that there is a latent demand for embedded researchers within organisations, and, across the PHLARP scheme that is a focus of this research, most were welcomed by colleagues. Our research also suggests that embedded researchers can build on substantial levels of curiosity about research and evidence within Local Authority public health teams. In addition, our results also suggest that there are substantial levels of interest in embedded researcher opportunities among academic researchers. However, we also identify concerns about the perceived value of applied research, misunderstandings about the impact of embedded researcher placements on career trajectories, and concerns about the sustainability of funding of posts, all of which are deterrents to more widescale adoption. 
  6. Co-creation happens (or should happen) throughout an embedded researcher intervention. Co-creation has been identified within the literature as a strategy for creating research that is more relevant to user needs and timely. Embedded researchers are ideally placed to facilitate co-creation as they possess relevant contextual knowledge around research production and around the context of use (how research should be described, when it is needed etc). 
  7. Embedded researcher posts are often exploratory in nature, but can lead to unanticipated challenges to embedded researchers themselves, and colleagues in the host organisation, without mitigation. Mitigations can include developing and periodically revising a logic model for the intervention to clarify the expectations of the role, being clearer with embedded researchers themselves about the exploratory nature of the role, and being aware that becoming more research active can increase time and workload pressures on staff in the host organisation and planning accordingly. 
  8. Becoming an embedded researcher is a rewarding career option for most researchers (although one that is misunderstood by many researchers without experiences of being embedded).

What are the conclusions?

Based on the findings presented in this summary, we have identified a number of principles or values that hold implications across stakeholders around how embedded researcher activities should be perceived, organised, and measured in the future.

  1. An embedded researcher is a form of exploratory and contextually bound intervention that works best when tailored to individual organisations. Therefore, understanding the local research context and constructing a logic model or theory of change should be explicitly named as an aim for embedded researchers. It is important to recognise the limitations of what a single individual is able to achieve within a complex system.
  2. Although embedded researcher interventions in public health settings ultimately aim to increase the uptake of research in practice and thereby improve health outcomes, these outcomes are unlikely to be systemically observed for years and without sustained investment in research capacity. 
  3. Embedded researcher interventions require a change in mindset towards co-creation. Co-creation holds implications for the way in which embedded researcher posts are developed and usually requires additional time to build relationships. This should be factored into planning and timelines.
  4. Embedded researcher interventions can change the power dynamics between research producers and research users. Mutually beneficial, respectful and reciprocal relationships between academia, policy and practice organisations are needed to promote an open learning culture alongside opportunities for collaborative work at all stages of research-policy processes (from agenda setting through to dissemination). 
  5. Applied embedded research can be impactful in changing organisations to become more research active, although applied research is not always highly regarded within universities.
  6. Embedded researchers require support at all levels to maximise the potential benefits of their roles for both host institutions and their own career trajectories.
  7. Embedded researcher interventions are theorised to follow a staged model which includes a stage involving undertaking activities to become embedded; evaluations need to understand the success of this stage to understand if/how further progress is achieved. For many embedded researcher interventions, gaining a more processual insight into which changes happen, and how, is likely to be more useful than quantitative metrics
  8. Our systematic map identified 108 different descriptors for the roles, activities or schemes that align with an embedded researcher intervention; there is a need to establish a core set of umbrella terms to describe embedded researcher roles and schemes to improve further advancement of knowledge around this area. 

What can you find on this webpage?

This webpage is being continually updated. As of 6 October 2023, you can find the following:

  • Main report, including draft key messages and executive summary
  • Research Briefing for future embedded researchers
  • Research Briefing for Local Authorities
  • Research Briefing for funding organisations
  • Research Briefing for universities and research organisations

We will keep updating this page as further publications are made available; these have been shared with the funder and are under peer review.

If you want to speak with any of us about the research, please contact:

Further information about this research

This research was carried out by Dylan Kneale, Rachael Edwards, Claire Stansfield, Sarah Lester, Rebecca Goldman and James Thomas.

This research was commissioned by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Policy Research Programme (PRP) for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). It was funded through a supplement to the NIHR PRP contract with the EPPI Centre at UCL (Reviews facility to support national policy development and implementation, PR-R6-0113-11003). The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the DHSC.

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