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The research industry

‘Research industry' in a social sciences research context refers to:

  • the money that is spent on commissioning and producing research
  • the specific skills required to deliver research, and;
  • the products that are generated in the form of research findings, evidence and outcomes.
The term industry also conveys the sense that research production is widespread, ongoing and reflective of the mixed economy of provision found in other areas of social care.


Large amounts of public and private money are spent on research. In social and public policy the amounts are smaller than for other subject areas such as medicine and science, but nevertheless do signify a great deal of activity. Research funding is predominantly used to employ researchers. The commissioning of research through formal tenders is often a highly competitive process with commercial research organisations, self-employed researchers (such as JM Consultants who undertook the review of the Diploma in Social Work), charitable organisations and universities competing for contracts. In this context the organisations bidding are engaged in profit-making enterprise. There is pressure on both private companies and higher education institutions to win research contracts for commercial reasons.

However the majority of funded health and social care research is undertaken in universities. They may employ Research Assistants to work on a particular project, or Research Fellows employed solely to undertake research. Doctoral and post-doctoral students contribute significantly to the creation of new research. Other academic staff may use research grants to ‘buy out' some of their other day to day tasks such as teaching or tutoring in order to undertake research. Research in universities in this context is not for profit, and benefits from drawing upon the infrastructure of the institutions such as libraries, computing facilities and staff expertise. Apart from those undertaking the research, the costs of research include all the support staff who are vital to the projects.

User perspectives

One cost that is frequently overlooked is that associated with the participation or involvement of service users in research. Disability rights groups have highlighted that much research is undertaken on the assumption that service users, such as people with disabilities and older people, have nothing better to do with their time than to talk to researchers. If people are to attend an interview or focus groups they may well need help with travel, the cost of personal carers and in some cases compensation for loss of earnings. More attention is being given now to participation by service users in the design, delivery and dissemination of research.

Service user organisations and groups are showing an increased interest in undertaking research either independently or in partnership. For example the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds was originally established in 1990 within the Department of Sociology and Social Policy as a research unit for the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP).

Dissemination of findings

Another aspect of the research industry is the product. The key objective of undertaking research in social work and social care is to discover new knowledge and bring about change, but to do so research has to be disseminated. To this end, reports of research findings are often made available free of charge, although usually it is the summary which is widely disseminated. In the past hard copies of full research reports were available to purchase at very high prices but with the rapid rise in the use of information technology they are now generally available on web sites (such as the JRF web site or the Department of Health and the Research in Practice updates). Summaries of current research are also published regularly in Community Care and by Social Care Online (formerly the Electronic Library for Social Care - eLSC) as a major resource for accessing up to date research findings.

The ESRC maintains Regard, a comprehensive Research Database.
A further route to dissemination is the involvement of researchers in writing more substantive texts, either putting the research into a context, such as policy development, or developing good practice from the research findings. An example of this is the book series published by Ashgate in collaboration with the former Centre for Evaluative and Developmental Research (CEDR) at the Social Work Studies Division at University of Southampton.

Dissemination also includes conference presentations and similar outlets. Again, service users are playing a greater part in research dissemination. For example an evaluation by the Division of Social Work Studies at the University of Southampton of Southampton Behaviour Resource Service included in the costs of the study a conference and additional publication. Young people and parents who were service users were part of the conference planning group and delivered presentations. The researchers also worked with staff and service users to produce a compilation publication of more than 30 contributions, which added a rich set of voices and perspectives to the main body of the research findings.

In recent years the commitment of the Department of Health to evidence-based practice has meant that another branch of the research industry has developed. Organisations have been funded to bring to practitioners’ attention significant research findings and to promote high quality research. These include Research in Practice and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE).


The third aspect of the research industry is concerned with the skills necessary to undertake research. There are a growing number of courses and publications designed to help individuals undertake research. Opportunities exist for social work practitioners to undertake doctoral studies either full or part-time. There are also a number of Masters programmes in research methods, either generally in social sciences research (see the University of Surrey) or specifically in research methods for social and health care (see MSC in Professional Studies Research Methods stream at the University of Southampton). In the case of specific courses they often also offer a CCETSW Post Qualification or Advanced Award.

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