Background: A challenge facing science is how to renew and improve its relationship with society. One potential solution is to ensure that the public are more involved in the scientific process from the inception of research plans to scientific dissemination strategies. However, to date, little is known about how research funding bodies view public participation in research funding decisions, and how they involve the public into their strategies and practices. This paper provides insights into how key representatives working in the UK non-commercial research funding sector perceive public participation in health-related research funding decisions and the possible implications of these.
Methods: We conducted qualitative semi-structured interviews with 30 key stakeholders from 10 UK non-commercial research funding bodies that either partially or exclusively fund health-related research. The findings were written up in thematic narrative form.
Results: The different disciplines that encompass health research, and their differing frames of 'science and society', were found to influence how research funding bodies viewed and implemented public participation in research funding decisions. Relevant subsets of the public were more likely to be involved in research funding decisions than lay public, which could be linked to underlying technocratic rationales. Concerns about public participation stemmed from the highly professionalised scientific environment that the public were exposed to. Additionally, from a more positivist frame, concerns arose regarding subjective views and values held by the public that may damage the integrity of science.
Conclusion: Underlying assumptions of technocracy largely appear to be driving PP/PE within the research grant review process, even in funding bodies that have overtly democratic ideals. Some conceptions of technocracy were more inclusive than others, welcoming different types of expertise such as patient or research-user experiences and knowledge, while others suggested taking a narrower and more positivist view of expertise as techno-scientific expertise. For research to have its maximum impact when translated into healthcare, health policies and health technologies, there needs to be sensitivity towards multiple frames of knowledge, expertise and underlying values that exist across science and society.