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How to analyse the research question in an NIHR funding application


How can we reduce a research question down into its essential ingredients? One way is to use a tool developed by PenPIG, the Public Involvement Group for the The NIHR ARC South West Peninsula (also known as PenARC), to examine certain aspects of the application that are relevant to patient benefit.

This approach aims to make sure the question is focused and clear, and whether or not the approach being taken will give the best answer. It also enables a reviewer to look for gaps that the proposed study might not fill.

Who are the target population? 

For example: it might be a question about children or about older adults; it might be about people with a particular condition or involved in the same activity (‘smokers’ or ‘airline pilots’). Getting a clear idea of who the question is about helps us think about whether the study is including the right participants.

  • Who are the people this question is about?
  • Have researchers identified the right people?
  • What is the problem being looked at?
  • Do you think researchers have understood what this problem means for service users?

What is being done (the intervention)?

This might be giving people a drug, an exercise programme, or a better or newer service. It could also be that the research team are looking at a health issue – for instance if the research was looking at whether exposure to smoking or environmental pollution caused health problems.

  • Are researchers proposing to do or change something? (e.g. treatment with drugs or other therapy, changing diet or exercise)
  • Is this something you feel is practical and acceptable for real service users to do or have done to them?
  • Are they looking at the effects of something already happening (e.g. exposure to smoking, effects of poor housing, economic or social factors)
  • Does their understanding fit with your real world experience of these issues?

What is the intervention compared to?

Is the study comparing one drug or treatment with another? It might be comparing something new with what is usually done (‘treatment as usual’). Not all study designs include a comparison.

  • Is there something that they are comparing this with (not doing something or doing something differently)?
  • Do they explain why and how they are going about this?
  • How are people assigned to the different groups or treatments?
  • Is this likely to be acceptable to service users?

What is the study looking for?

How could the question be answered? What would the study look for and/or measure?

  • What is it for?
  • Are the aims of the research well explained – and do they seem to be the right ones to you?
  • Will knowing the answer to this question make a difference to real people?
  • Will it be an important difference for them?
  • How important?
  • How do researchers plan to make sure the results of their research are disseminated and shared?
  • Do they intend involving service users in this?

What is the question being asked?

If the proposal does not clearly state the research question use items 1-4 to help you structure it

Are the documents clearly written, with scientific terms and acronyms explained?

These documents should be written in plain English – that is “writing that the intended audience can read and understand the first time they read it.” Participant information sheets need to be written in a way that people being invited to take part can easily understand. It is worth stopping and thinking about who these people might be and how much knowledge they might reasonably be expected to have.

How are service users involved in this research?

Service users might be involved in a number of different ways including:

  • setting the research question
  • acting as researchers
  • as steering group members
  • as advisors
  • or just as ‘guinea pigs’

Some projects will have more than one way of involving people at different times.

  • Do you think this project has got the right balance of involvement for what it wants to achieve?
  • Do you think the right people and organisations are being involved?
  • Are plans for involvement well explained, planned and thought out?

What could researchers do to improve this project?

Is there something that made you think: ‘why don’t they...’ or ‘If only they didn’t...’?

Is there a group you know about that could help them improve the project?

Do you know about other research that could help answer the question?