Career advice

Nursing and clinical research: let’s look at the impact of nurses

Without the wide spectrum of nursing roles in research there wouldn’t be excellent practice

Without the wide spectrum of nursing roles in research there wouldn’t be excellent practice

Research conducted by nurses directly determines how care is given. Picture: Alamy

From Florence Nightingale reporting the number of preventable deaths during the Crimean War to recent studies into areas such as safe staffing, research by nurses has long had a major effect on the way healthcare is delivered. 

Research underpins all aspects of nursing care and supports the promotion of evidence-based practice but research impact in nursing is largely based on the Research Excellence Framework (REF), applicable only to nurses undertaking research in universities.

There is no equivalent in the NHS or other settings for research-active nurses to promote and highlight the impact of their work, which is why the impact of research in nursing more generally is an ongoing focus of the RCN Research Society.

Notable areas of nursing research

The ‘hidden impact’ of nursing research was explored by the society in 2016. Eighty case studies submitted to the 2014 REF were identified based on nurse-led research of international calibre that had improved practice and patient outcomes. Notable was research into cancer and palliative care, safer staffing and care quality, mental health and chronic disease management.

Throughout last year, we conducted a series of workshops focusing on research impact. The overwhelming consensus was that despite a variety of tools available to show impact, there was a desire for the RCN to play a wider role in increasing the visibility of research carried out by nurses.  

Nurses’ involvement in research lies on a spectrum: at one end, are the nurses identifying evidence, critically appraising this evidence and implementing it in practice. At the other, are the nurses who are leading programmes of research. Recognised nationally and internationally as experts in their field, these nurses are advancing the profession through new evidence.

There are also many nurses undertaking research as part of gaining academic qualifications and conducting studies to develop practice and clinical academic roles. Clinical academic roles, which are relatively new to the NHS, enable nurses who remain in practice while undertaking a research element, acting as role models to colleagues and supporting the timely implementation of new evidence.

Nurses' role in clinical research

Nurses also play a significant role in supporting clinical research. In England, for example, around 10,000 clinical research nurses are employed by the National Institute for Health Research clinical research networks to deliver and manage the clinical trials portfolio. Many nurses are employed by academic institutions to manage trials.

While some research roles are delivered by research practitioners, regulatory requirements and the complexity of many clinical assessments require a registered nurse. Once seen as an ‘easy option’ away from the challenges of front-line care delivery, the clinical research nursing role has evolved to the level of an expert practitioner, who ensures the efficient delivery of high-quality research in accordance with regulatory requirements.

These are senior nursing positions at band 6 and above and require an autonomous and assertive approach, as well as the ability to support and educate research participants and communicate clear expectations in relation to non-compliance.

Research and nursing are intertwined. Reference to one cannot be made without acknowledging the other; without research you would not have excellent nursing practice, and without nurses the NHS would not be world leaders in research.

The impact of nurses as independent researchers and experts in clinical research roles is increasingly recognised in national research exercises, such as REF2021. The RCN Research Society continues to strive for increased visibility for the impact of the nursing contribution to research beyond this, reflecting excellence in research across UK healthcare.  

Research conference

The impact of nursing research is the theme for this year’s RCN international nursing research conference at Sheffield Hallam University from 3-5 September.


Further information

Rachel Taylor is director of the Centre for Nurse, Midwife and Allied Health Professional Led Research at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and a committee member of the RCN Research Society



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