This study was concerned with developing the evidence base for public involvement in research in health and social care. There now is significant support for public involvement within the National Institute for Health Research, and researchers applying for National Institute for Health Research grants are expected to involve the public. Despite this policy commitment, evidence for the benefits of public involvement in research remains limited. This study addressed this need through a realist evaluation.
The aim was to identify the contextual factors and mechanisms that are regularly associated with effective public involvement in research. The objectives included identifying a sample of eight research projects and their desired outcomes of public involvement, tracking the impact of public involvement in these case studies, and comparing the associated contextual factors and mechanisms.
Case study data supported the importance of some aspects of our theory of public involvement in research and led us to amend other elements. Public involvement was associated with improvements in research design and delivery, particularly recruitment strategies and materials, and data collection tools. This study identified the previously unrecognised importance of principal investigator leadership as a key contextual factor leading to the impact of public involvement; alternatively, public involvement might still be effective without principal investigator leadership where there is a wider culture of involvement. In terms of the mechanisms of involvement, allocating staff time to facilitate involvement appeared more important than formal budgeting. Another important new finding was that many research proposals significantly undercosted public involvement. Nurturing good interpersonal relationships was crucial to effective involvement. Payment for research partner time and formal training appeared more significant for some types of public involvement than others. Feedback to research partners on the value of their contribution was important in maintaining motivation and confidence.