• Open Access

The case for funding more intervention research in public health – policy maker and researcher perspectives


Corresponding author: Andrew J Milat, NSW Ministry of Health, Locked Mail Bag 961, North Sydney, NSW 2059; e-mail: Andrew.Milat@doh.health.nsw.gov.au

The transfer of new knowledge from research into practice continues to be sub-optimal.1 A contributing factor is the lack of research evidence that is immediately useful to policy makers, particularly the shortage of evidence regarding feasible and effective interventions.2 A recent study3 found that intervention research studies comprised only a modest proportion (10–23%) of all published studies on public health aspects of physical activity and falls prevention between 1988 and 2009, despite recent efforts by governments and funding agencies to fund more applied research4–6 (see Table 1).

Table 1. Recent examples of applied research funding schemes.
Funding SchemeKnowledge Synthesis GrantNHMRC Partnership Project GrantsCenters for Diabetes Translation Research
AgencyCanadian Institutes of Health ResearchNHMRCNational Institutes of Health
CountryCanadaAustraliaUnited States
Year of Initiation200620082009
Selection Criteria1. Research approach
2. Originality of the Proposal
3. Applicant(s)
4. Environment for the Research
5. Impact of the Research
1. Track Records of the Chief Investigators Relative to Opportunity
2. Scientific Quality of the Proposal and Methodology
3. Relevance and Likelihood to Influence Health and Research Policy and Practice
4. Strength of Partnership
1. Significance
2. Investigator(s)
3. Innovation
4. Approach
5. Environment
Web link http://www.researchnet-recherchenet.ca/rnr16/viewOpportunityDetails.do?progCd=10219&org=CIHR http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/grants/apply/strategic/funding_rules_partnership_projects_120418.pdf http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PAR-09-177.html

Using purposeful sampling techniques, we asked senior policymakers (n=7) and researchers (n=7) (response rate of 88%) to respond to questions on the issue of research funding, as part of a larger survey on scaling up public health interventions, conducted in March–April 2011.7 When respondents were asked ‘should government funding agencies like the National Health and Medical Research Council give higher priority to funding of intervention research’ all responded ‘yes’. When subsequently asked ‘what criteria or processes should funding agencies use to inform prioritisation of intervention research’ the most frequently cited criteria in rank order were: 1) giving priority or extra weighting to intervention and effectiveness studies; 2) focusing on research quality; 3) alignment of research funding with government priorities; and 4) the track record and expertise of researchers.

There were generally convergent views among researchers and policy makers; however, not surprisingly, policy makers rated aligning research funding with government priorities more highly, while researchers rated research quality higher. It is important to note that there appeared to be consensus that current peer review processes were appropriate, but that greater engagement of policy makers was required in setting priorities for research funding and assessment processes.

The findings of this small survey are consistent with reports on the views of senior Australian researchers8 and policy makers1 regarding the need for more intervention research, particularly ‘real world’ effectiveness and dissemination studies. At the same time, it is clear that recent efforts by funding agencies in Australia and overseas to fund more applied research as yet have not translated into the publication of more intervention study results in the peer reviewed literature.

Our findings suggest that while attitudes may be shifting in Australia, there is still little evidence that this has produced broader system change and more applied research output. There remains a strong case for funding agencies and journals to increase support for methodologically rigorous intervention research and recognise that this may include study designs other than randomised controlled trials.9 Applying broader reviewer and reporting criteria that take into account guidance such as the Medical Research Council ‘Developing and evaluating complex interventions’,10 Cochrane Collaboration ‘Effective Practice and Organization of Care (EPOC) Criteria11 for reviewing study designs and data quality’ and ‘Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT)’ statement12 should also result in more methodologically appropriate intervention research making it through peer review processes. Funding agencies should adopt research designs appropriate to generating policy-relevant evidence,9 as well as funding more targeted intervention research grant schemes.8 Encouragingly, it appears that some of these calls are being heeded, with the recent introduction of the NHMRC Partnership Grants and NHMRC Partnerships Centres, and a requirement for potential policy and practice impacts to be detailed in NHMRC grant applications. Finally, on-going investigation into why current efforts to foster more applied research are not translating into the production of more policy and practice-focused intervention research evidence is vital, if we are to achieve improvements in population health.