Understanding relevance of health research: considerations in the context of research impact assessment

Health Research Policy and Systems
[Accessed 22 April 2017]

Understanding relevance of health research: considerations in the context of research impact assessment
Mark J. Dobrow, Fiona A. Miller, Cy Frank and Adalsteinn D. Brown
Published on: 17 April 2017
With massive investment in health-related research, above and beyond investments in the management and delivery of healthcare and public health services, there has been increasing focus on the impact of health research to explore and explain the consequences of these investments and inform strategic planning. Relevance is reflected by increased attention to the usability and impact of health research, with research funders increasingly engaging in relevance assessment as an input to decision processes. Yet, it is unclear whether relevance is a synonym for or predictor of impact, a necessary condition or stage in achieving it, or a distinct aim of the research enterprise. The main aim of this paper is to improve our understanding of research relevance, with specific objectives to (1) unpack research relevance from both theoretical and practical perspectives, and (2) outline key considerations for its assessment.
Our approach involved the scholarly strategy of review and reflection. We prepared a draft paper based on an exploratory review of literature from various fields, and gained from detailed and insightful analysis and critique at a roundtable discussion with a group of key health research stakeholders. We also solicited review and feedback from a small sample of expert reviewers.
Research relevance seems increasingly important in justifying research investments and guiding strategic research planning. However, consideration of relevance has been largely tacit in the health research community, often depending on unexplained interpretations of value, fit and potential for impact. While research relevance seems a necessary condition for impact – a process or component of efforts to make rigorous research usable – ultimately, relevance stands apart from research impact. Careful and explicit consideration of research relevance is vital to gauge the overall value and impact of a wide range of individual and collective research efforts and investments. To improve understanding, this paper outlines four key considerations, including how research relevance assessments (1) orientate to, capture and compare research versus non-research sources, (2) consider both instrumental versus non-instrumental uses of research, (3) accommodate dynamic temporal-shifting perspectives on research, and (4) align with an intersubjective understanding of relevance.