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Open Access Research article

National support to public health research: a survey of European ministries

Cláudia Conceição1*, Alexandra Leandro1 and Mark McCarthy2

Author Affiliations

1 Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Avenida Padre Cruz, 1600-560 Lisboa, Portugal

2 UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, 1-19 Torrington Place, London WC1E 6BT, UK

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BMC Public Health 2009, 9:203  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-9-203

Published: 25 June 2009

Abstract

Background

Within SPHERE (Strengthening Public Health Research in Europe), a collaborative study funded by the European Commission, we have assessed the support for public health research at ministry level in European countries.

Methods

We surveyed the health and science ministries in 25 EU countries and 3 EEA countries, using a broad definition of public-health research at population level. We made over 600 phone calls and emails to identify respondents and to gain answers. We gained formal replies from 42 out of 56 ministries (73% response) in 25 countries. There were 22 completed questionnaires (from 25 ministries), 6 short answers and 11 contacts declaring that their ministries were not responsible for public health research, while in 14 ministries (both ministries in three countries) no suitable ministry contact could be found.

Results

In most European countries, ministries of health, or their devolved agencies, were regarded as the leading organizations. Most ministries were able to specify thematic areas for public-health research (from three to thirty), and others ministries referred to policy documents, health plans or public-health plans to define research priorities. Ministries and their agencies led on decisions for financial support of public-health research, with less involvement of other external organisations compared with the process of identifying priorities. However, the actual funds available for public health were not easily identifiable. Most ministries relied on general academic means for dissemination of results of public-health research, while ministries get information on the use of public-health research usually through informal means. Ministries made suggestions for strengthening public-health research through initiatives of their own countries and of the European Union: as well as more resources, improving coordination was most frequently suggested.

Conclusion

There is no common approach to support for public-health research across Europe, and significant gaps in organisation and funding. Health ministries and national agencies value exchange between researchers and policy-makers, civil society organizations, and academic and public authorities, and the application of public-health research results. There would be benefits from better processes of priority setting and improved coordination for research, at regional, national and European levels.